Medical tourism is the process of traveling to a different country for medical care. Tens of thousands of U.S. residents travel abroad each year for medical services, and the total number of medical tourists to all countries in 2017 alone was estimated at 14-16 million (Dalen, 2018). Medical tourism is becoming increasingly popular due to the lower cost of various health services abroad, the availability of procedures or therapies not offered in one’s current location, and preferences of immigrants to return to their country of origin for medical care. The most common procedures sought by medical tourists include cosmetic surgery, dentistry, and heart surgery (HHS).
Medical tourism was initially fueled by citizens of developing countries traveling to the United States and other developed countries for the expertise and advanced technology of leading medical centers not available in their homeland. Though this practice continues today, there has been a recent trend in which citizens of highly developed nations seek medical services in less-developed areas due to the relative low cost of treatments, inexpensive flights, and increase of online marketing (Meštrović 2018). For instance, the cost of insurance in the United States is much higher than that of many other countries, making it difficult for a number of Americans to afford the medical services they need or desire domestically (Faulkner 2018). As a result, many Americans travel abroad to where a variety of medical services are offered at a lower cost.
Popular destinations for medical tourists vary depending on the medical procedure or treatment sought. Countries in Central and South America have become popular for cosmetic and plastic surgery, bariatric procedures, and dental care. A number of highly developed nations including Belgium, Canada, Germany, Israel, and Italy also attract foreign patients because of their sophisticated modern care that prioritizes patient preferences and satisfaction. Countries in Asia, including India, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand, are popular destinations for medical tourists seeking cardiac surgery and orthopedic surgery. India in particular is known for its very affordable medical services, with costs as low as 10% of those in the United States. In 2004, approximately 1.2 million medical tourists traveled to India for health care (Horowitz et al. 2007).
Medical tourism presents potential opportunities but also significant concerns and challenges for the patient as well as the healthcare landscape in developing countries around the world. Though economists Mattoo and Rathindran suggest that the quality of care available to citizens of developing countries can be improved through the revenue generated by medical services offered to foreign patients, others have indicated that “medical tourism may seriously undermine the care of local residents by adversely impacting workforce distribution” (Horowitz et al. 2007). Concerns surrounding patient safety and quality of medical care have also been raised, depending on the area visited and the medical services sought. For instance, medications in lower-income settings of care may be counterfeit, outdated, or of poor quality (AMA). Other potential risks for medical tourists include substandard surgical care and poor infection control compared to that in the patient’s home country.
Communication and travel-related risks are additional challenges for medical tourists. In particular, undergoing a procedure by a medical professional who does not speak one’s language fluently poses a higher risk of misunderstandings (HHS). Furthermore, patients may develop complications from procedures received abroad and may face difficulties seeking help from the foreign professionals who provided the services or receiving proper follow-up care upon returning home, as they often do not have detailed records of the procedures they underwent and the medications they were given. It is important for patients to understand the various risks that arise when seeking health care services in a foreign country before deciding whether to travel abroad for medical purposes.
American Medical Association (AMA). Medical Tourism. American Medical Association. https://www.ama-assn.org/delivering-care/ethics/medical-tourism.
Dalen JE (2018, July 15). Medical Tourists: Incoming and Outgoing. The American Journal of Medicine. DOI: 10.1016/j.amjmed.2018.06.022.
Faulkner, B. (2018, October 31). The Rise of Medical Tourism and What It Means for Healthcare. Healthcare in America. https://healthcareinamerica.us/the-rise-of-medical-tourism-and-what-it-means-for-healthcare-767f228d3727.
Horowitz MD, Rosensweig JA, Jones CA (2007, November 13). Medical Tourism: Globalization of the Healthcare Marketplace. Medscape General Medicine. 2007;9(4):33.
Meštrović, T. (2018, August 23). What is Medical Tourism? News Medical Life Sciences. https://www.news-medical.net/health/What-is-Medical-Tourism.aspx.
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). Medical Tourism: Getting Medical Care in Another Country. Travelers’ Health. https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/page/medical-tourism.