Booking her flight to Bangkok, Thailand, Mia, a 35-year photographer from Philadelphia, only had two things in mind: her son’s well-being and the implicated costs. Her son needed a root canal, and she was determined to travel to Thailand for the operation because Thailand offered a more affordable alternative for the dental work needed.
The growing trend of patients from developed countries traveling to less developed countries to obtain health care has been redefining global healthcare (Ghumarea, 2015). Previously, medical tourism mostly defined people who traveled for treatment that was not available or not well developed in their home country. Medical tourism trends in the past included plastic surgery or convoluted and esoteric procedures that only certain hospitals offered. In recent years, however, there has been an exponential growth in number of patients from developed countries traveling to obtain low-priced health care abroad (Goodrich, 1987).
In fact, Mia is not alone. It was estimated that in 2016, over 1.4 million Americans traveled abroad for medical care, a significant increase from the estimated 750,000 who did so in 2007. Worldwide, around 14 million patients who traveled abroad in 2016 spent between 50-70 billion dollars for alternative medical options in foreign countries (Woodman, 2011).
Many trace the increase in medical tourists to the increasing prices of health care in developed countries such as the United States. According to a 2015 National Health expenditure highlight, health care spending in the United States increased by 5.8 percent from 2014 to reach $3.2 trillion dollars. This is equivalent to $9,900 dollars spent per person in a single year. These numbers dwarf those from previous years. A decade ago, national health care spending was $2.0 trillion dollars or $6,697 dollars per person. The growth in health care spending is being driven by trending growth in spending for private health insurance, hospital care, physician and clinical services (CMS, 2016).
Although there is no consensus as to exactly how many medical tourists around the world travel on a yearly basis, the reduction of cost for treatment has been largely consistent. The potential savings for an individual can range from 20% to 90% reduction in price depending on the type of procedure and the location (McArdle, 2013).
A total hip replacement in India would roughly cost $4,000, a fraction of the cost if one were to have one in the US or UK, which could easily cost over $10,000. Even after factoring into airfare and living costs, one could potentially save thousands of dollars by having the procedure done in India (Lunt, Smith, Exworthy, Green, Horsfall, & Mannion, 2015).
In many underdeveloped countries, medical tourism represents a growing and lucrative business. Foreign government and private institutions are implementing ways to attract medical tourists as the numbers continue to rise for this billion-dollar industry. Medical tourists can generate revenue that supports local medical services. For instance, Singapore and India both stress that medical tourism enables the country to provide a broader range of services for the local population. Furthermore, opening up global competition for the medical industry makes domestic prices for developed countries more competitive (Lunt, Smith, Exworthy, Green, Horsfall, & Mannion, 2015).
However, many argue that the growth in this industry is detrimental (Ramirez de Arellano, 2007). Developing countries may emphasize procedures popular to foreign medical tourists while neglecting the needs for majority of its citizens. With more money available in the private sector, medical tourism in developing countries can cause experienced and talented physicians to move from the public to private sector, as seen in countries such as India and Thailand. More competition for local health care also means that native citizens are often crowded out (CDC, 2016).
Although a growingly popular topic, there is still a lack of hard research that carefully analyzes the role medical tourism plays in impacting participating countries. Much work is still needed to been done in this field. Whether medical tourism is globally beneficial or harmful, one thing is certain: developed countries will continue to see a surge in participating medical tourists if domestic medical prices continue to rise.
CDC. (2016, December 05). Medical Tourism. Retrieved from
CMS. (2016, December 02). NHE-Fact-Sheet. Retrieved from
Ghumarea, N (2015, July 23). Medical Tourism Market Will Reach USD 32.5 Billion by 2019 With CAGR of 17.9% During the Forecast Period of 2013 to 2019: Transparency Market Research. Retrieved from http://http://www.marketwatch.com/story/medical-tourism-market-will-reach-usd
Goodrich, J. N. (1987, September). Health-care tourism – an exploratory study. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0261517787900537
Lunt, N., Smith, R., Exworthy, M., Green, S. T., Horsfall, D., & Mannion, R. (2015). Medical Tourism: Treatments, Markets and Health System Implications: A scoping review. Retrieved from https://www.oecd.org/els/health-systems/48723982.pdf
McArdle, E. (2013). Patients Without Borders. Retrieved from https://today.law.harvard.edu/feature/patients-without-borders-i-glenn-cohen-on-the-rise-of-medical-tourism/
Ramirez de Arellano, A. B. (2007, January 1). Patients without Borders: The Emergence of Medical Tourism. Retrieved from http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.2190/4857-468G-2325-47UU
Woodman, J. (2011, July 11). Medical Tourism Statistics & Facts. Retrieved from http://www.patientsbeyondborders.com/medical-tourism-statistics-facts
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