What is medical tourism? Definition and meaning

Medical tourism refers to traveling to another country for medical treatment.

Many factors influence the decision to travel overseas for medical care. For some, it may be because of affordability. Other medical tourists may seek treatment abroad because a certain procedure or therapy is not available in their home country. 

In the past, medical tourism was driven by people from less-developed countries going to highly developed countries for care that wasn’t available in their home country. However, nowadays it has become increasingly more common for people from developed nations to travel to developing countries for more affordable medical treatment. 

In some cases, there may simply be no option but to travel for medical treatment if the medical services necessary are only available in certain parts of the world.

The majority of medical tourists pay for their care at time of service. Private companies or medical concierge services are often used to find foreign health care facilities.

Medical tourism is now a worldwide, multibillion-dollar phenomenon. It is market driven and shaped by medical, economic, social and political forces.

Patients Beyond Borders estimates that the market size of medical tourism is between $45.5 to $72 billion. This estimate is “based on approximately 14-16 million cross-border patients worldwide spending an average of USD 3,800-6,000 per visit.”

Medical TourismThe main reasons patients go abroad for medical treatment

According to “Medical Tourism – Health Care in the Global Economy”, by Michael D. Horowitz, MD, MBA and Jeffrey A. Rosensweig, PhD, reasons patients seek care at medical tourism destinations include:

  • Low cost – particularly in the US among people with no insurance or inadequate insurance.
  • To avoid waiting lists – this is common among those who live in countries with a national health service, such as the UK and Canada.
  • Procedure not available in home country
  • Tourism and vacations
  • Privacy

The risks of medical tourism

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are some specific risks of medical tourism. 

The risks include:

  • Issues with communication. There is a chance that misunderstandings can occur if a patient receives medical care at a facility in a country where they don’t speak the language fluently. 
  • Poor quality or counterfeit medications in some countries. 

Popular medical tourism destinations

The top medical tourism destinations, according to Patients Beyond Borders, are: Costa Rica, India, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, and the United States.

International healthcare accreditation

There is a global effort to ensure that healthcare services are up to a certain standard. International healthcare accreditation is the process of certifying healthcare programs in the interest of patient safety. 

For medical tourists, a facility with an international healthcare accreditation provides some insight into the quality of treatment. 

In the United States, the accreditation group Joint Commission International (JCI) was formed in 1994. JCI accreditation is considered by many healthcare professionals to be the gold standard in global health care. According to JCI, it “identifies, measures, and shares best practices in quality and patient safety with the world.”

A complete list of JCI-accredited organizations can be found here.