Medical tourism: Why is travelling for healthcare services on a rise

Medical tourism or travel to receive medical care has witnessed a rise globally. Know all about it, the factors driving it and its benefits.

There are robust efforts across major countries in the world to become hubs for medical tourism. India isn’t far behind. It is, in fact, one of the top 10 countries where people are travelling to seek healthcare services.

What is medical tourism?

Medical tourism is international travel to receive medical care. The global medical tourism sector, a thriving multi-billion-dollar industry, is experiencing consistent growth driven by the expanding globalization of healthcare services. Starting as people from less-developed countries go to developed countries to get treatments that aren’t available in their own country, it turns into people traveling from richer to less-developed countries to access health services at a cheaper price.

With the two words medical tourism, both add to the overall meaning. The “medical” part is going to another country for medical reasons, and “tourism” is the concept of people staying in a foreign country after the procedure for sightseeing, traditional tourism activities, and many other things.

Dr Ankur Garg (Surgical Gastroenterology & Liver Transplant at Metro Group of Hospitals in Faridabad, India, and Sanar International Hospitals in Gurugram), believes medical tourism is “patients traveling for their healthcare needs. The main reason behind it is of course unavailability of specialty services in their region or country.” This just further goes with the fact that people travel due to their area not being as developed in a certain type of medical treatment. He also talks about how people not only travel from country to country but from state to state in India.

Surgical operations are an important factor driving medical tourism. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

The growth of medical tourism

As per the Ministry of Tourism data, foreign tourist arrivals (FTA) for medical purposes in India grew from 495,000 in 2017 to 644,000 in 2018 and 697,000 in 2019. The pull was brought in by cost-effective services for high-quality treatments and new-age healthcare facilities. While the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 affected inbound patients, FY 2023 saw a resurrection with 304,000 foreign tourists coming in for medical intervention.

The global medical tourism market is also poised for growth. According to the Medical Tourism Global Market Report 2023, it will grow from $35.77 billion in 2022 to $39.95 billion in 2023 at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 11.7 percent. By 2027, it is expected to grow to $59.67 billion at a CAGR of 10.5 percent.

Also read: The Evolution of Healthcare in Greece: From Ancient Wisdom to Modern Advancements

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Why do people travel abroad for surgeries?

They get medical treatment and a vacation in one. Two birds, one stone. Other than getting a vacation, there are more reasons people travel abroad for surgeries. These include:

  • Decreased Cost
  • Recommendations for families and friends
  • Preferred Care
  • Not available in their own country

Another key reason which isn’t talked about as much, is the infrastructure of their home country. For the vast majority of the population with insurance, it only covers medical expenses in their own country and not in others.

When talking to Ashish D, whose mother recently traveled to India from Massachusetts for dental implants, he said the two main reasons were “familiarity with dentists in India […and] the difference in the cost of the procedure between a dentist in MA and a dentist in India.” Even when considering the cost of travel and how much she could have saved through insurance, it was still 5,000 dollars less than if she had done the procedure in the US. Considering that one dental costs between 3-5 thousand dollars in the US, she got two for the price of one and got to visit family.

Dental treatments are also popular for medical tourism. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

Benefits of medical tourism

In today’s world, an emerging trend in healthcare is offering individuals unique opportunities beyond their home borders. This global quest for medical solutions presents various advantages, including:

  • Cheaper cost: Medical costs in India are significantly cheaper compared to a lot of other South East Asian countries. There is also a tremendous gap in cost between Western countries such as Europe and US and India.
  • Reduced waiting times: When booking appointments in the United States, it can be over a month before you can see the doctor for a necessary surgery. However, in places such as India, it can be just a few days.
  • Specialised expertise: Many doctors in foreign lands are much more specialized in a specific field, instead of having a wider scope of practice, the doctors tend to focus on a few types of surgeries and perfect them.
  • Alternative medicine: In the US, it is common practice to give medicine to a patient for even the smallest condition. When someone is always given medication their body becomes too dependent on medication and can’t fight any disease on their own. Many countries such as India give alternative types of medicine such as Ayurveda, which treats the current illness without making the body weak.

Disadvantages of medical tourism

While medical tourism has gained popularity for its potential benefits, there are important considerations that you should be aware of before embarking on your healthcare journey abroad, including:

  • Lack of insurance coverage: Many insurance companies don’t cover outside of their specific country. So when considering the cost after insurance of your treatment in your homeland.
  • Travel risk/cost: Many travel risks could happen when you are going to a new place. Plus, the cost of traveling is also a big one as plane tickets are getting increasingly expensive by the day.
  • Difficulty with follow-up care: Many surgeries require follow-up appointments that can range from a week to a month after the original surgery. Since many people don’t want to stay in a foreign country that long, they tend to travel back to their country before their follow-up visit causing them to have to book one with a doctor in their area, which could take up to a month or two post surgery.

The last word

Medical tourism represents a growing global phenomenon, where individuals embark on international journeys to access healthcare services while enjoying the added benefit of a vacation. This industry thrives on factors like reduced costs, recommendations, and the unavailability of treatments in one’s home country. Despite potential drawbacks such as language barriers, travel risks, and insurance limitations, the advantages, including cost savings and life-changing experiences, often outweigh these concerns. As the world continues to witness the globalization of healthcare, medical tourism is poised to remain a viable and attractive option for individuals seeking quality medical care with a touch of adventure.

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