The Proliferation & Considerations of Medical Tourism

08/27/2017 08:47 pm ET

A colorful facet of globalization has been the blurring of international boundaries, allowing individuals to travel across country lines with ease to enjoy services and unique cultural phenomena different from their own. Healthcare has become one such sought-after service in the international marketplace, as standards of medical modernization and health outcomes have risen collectively across the global community. This industry, which has been formalized as “medical tourism,” and has thrived due to the work of various organizing bodies, brings with it numerous important considerations.

Signboard introducing various treatment options to medical tourists in Thailand.
https://flic.kr/p/d5NEFN ; Robert Schrader
Signboard introducing various treatment options to medical tourists in Thailand.

What is Medical Tourism?

Medical tourism refers plainly to the act of traveling to a foreign country to receive medical care. But this industry is by no means ordinary; rather, it constitutes a robust marketplace, expected to reach nearly $165 million USD by 2023. For many countries, this profit opportunity is visibly a priority, as many tourism agencies and travel partners actively market, sell, and cater to foreigners availing medical services in specific countries.

Generally, the industry caters to those that are seeking cosmetic procedures, restorative therapies, or high risk techniques. There are many reasons why individuals may seek these types of care abroad, including the fact that certain countries have been specifically recognized as leaders in specific areas of modern medicine. For example, the United States is well recognized for its treatment of specialized chronic conditions and mental health, due to its advanced medical research and infrastructure. Barbados is renowned for its affordable and cutting edge fertility treatments. Brazil is a highly sought-after destination for plastic and cosmetic surgery, thanks to its low cost structures and lax oversight. Thailand also attracts large numbers of individuals for cosmetic and elective care, partially due to its commitment to being a large travel hub in Asia, as well as its reputed hospitals and physicians. Cuba is known for its relatively inexpensive general and rehabilitative care. India offers specialized surgeries and complex procedures at highly discounted prices (as compared with the United States), therefore attracting a huge percent of medical tourists, as well as international physicians that want to take advantage of the business opportunity.

Ultimately, the decision calculus to seek care across borders is seemingly driven by a variety of factors, including price, ease of access, and the perception (whether accurate or not) of more specialized and promising care.

Hospital ward in Cuba.
https://flic.kr/p/bx1g59 ; Bruno Sanchez-Andrade Nuño
Hospital ward in Cuba.

Considerations

Though the growth of the industry is robust, and the drivers to seek care across borders are many, there are important considerations to heed when determining if medical tourism is an appropriate choice.

From a legal perspective, healthcare destinations globally may have differing standards and protocols for a variety of generally accepted legal-medicine issues, including what constitutes negligence, patient remedies for malpractice, patient privacy rights, and standards for informed consent.

Another important consideration is the quality of care that can be expected from the facility/physician abroad. Many developed nations assure internal uniformity in care and quality by empowering accrediting agencies to issue certifications of compliance. This trend should be mimicked for medical tourism agencies and partners. Governments should subject operators, tourism companies, and any other enterprises engaging in this business to streamlined and strict quality metrics, in order to ultimately ensure patient safety. Congruently, it is important that patients remain vigilant, and conduct the due diligence required before committing to any procedures.

Surgical suite specifically catering to medical tourists in Panama.
https://flic.kr/p/4ptDgz ; thinkpanama
Surgical suite specifically catering to medical tourists in Panama.

Inevitably, as individuals face higher costs, have difficulties with access to care, and determinatively become more empowered about their own healthcare choices, alternative venues for medical treatment will take precedence over traditional routes. Accordingly, medical tourism as an industry will likely continue to grow, placing a higher responsibility on governments, private actors, and most importantly, potential patients, to assess the multitude of considerations which coincide with seeking medical care across borders.

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