Medical tourism, also known as health tourism, surgical tourism or medical travel, is where an individual, couple or group crosses international borders for the primary purpose of seeking and receiving medical care.
Contrary to popular belief, medical tourism is not a contemporary concept – in fact it can be traced all the way back to Ancient Greece where worshippers of Asclepius, the Greco-Roman God of Medicine, made pilgrimages to his temple in Epidaurus to undergo healing via “incubation rituals”, which consisted of prayer, fasting and ceremony.
Nowadays, people are driven to travel internationally for medical treatment and care because a) the cost is lower and more affordable abroad even when they factor in airfare and accommodation; b) they can bypass waiting lists, which may be crucial if the medical treatment is urgent; and c) they are seeking a treatment or procedure that is unavailable in their home country.
According to Josef Woodman, founder and CEO of Patients Beyond Borders, around 100 million patients have crossed international borders for medical treatment since the beginning of this century; and it is predicted that in 2019, over 20 million patients will continue in the trend of traveling abroad for medical care.
While the driving factors behind the steady growth and expansion of the medical tourism industry are affordability, access to quality care, and availability of a plethora of treatments, recent studies have shown that there are new and emergent trends that will boost and sustain the industry for years to come.
The Rise of Millennial Medical Tourists
Having grown up on a diet of technology, it comes as of no surprise that millennials are becoming more prevalent in the medical tourism industry – their open-mindedness and enthusiasm for travel combined with their tech-savvy ways to research better and more affordable medical treatment have resulted in this age group contributing more and more to the medical tourism industry. Popular destinations for millennial medical tourists include exotic destinations such as Thailand, Indonesia, Costa Rica and Mexico as it allows them to convalesce in a country that is full of both wellness and adventurous activities for them to indulge in without breaking the bank.
As standards of living increase in developed countries around the world, people tend to live longer – well into their 80s and beyond. While this is generally seen as a good thing, evolution seems to have failed us when it comes to our teeth – it is said that our bodies generally outlive our teeth, and because of this the majority of people around the globe will require major restorative dentistry at some point in their lives.
This has resulted in dental health becoming a hot commodity in the medical tourism industry, especially since dental is not always covered in an individual’s general health insurance and complex dental procedures are overwhelmingly expensive. These factors have contributed to a boom in international dental tourism, which is expected to increase up to 30% over the next few years, the highest rate in the medical tourism sector.
Contributions from China
With China striving to improve access to quality healthcare while also juggling to resolve issues related to extreme air, water and food toxicity, this has resulted in droves of affluent Chinese individuals contributing to the global medical tourism industry by seeking care abroad. Many who travel for medical purposes usually seek treatment for complex medical issues such as respiratory diseases, brain and spine procedures, orthopedic procedures and cancer related treatments; and statistics from medical centers in America, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand all have shown that a large percentage of their patients hail from China.
Along with seeking disease-specific medical care, medical centers around the world have also notice an influx of Chinese woman – around 40 million – seeking fertility treatment. Since China’s One-Child Policy ban was rescinded in 2016, fertility clinics have sprung up like weeds all throughout China but questionable clinical care and service have pushed prospective parents to seek treatment across international borders resulting in a boom for fertility tourism.
The Use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Decision Making
With rapid advances made in the field of technology, artificial intelligence is become more precise and powerful by the minute; and in the world of medical tourism, being able to scan millions of documents in seconds and then diagnosing a patient in mere minutes has only done wonders for the international medical industry, especially where patients are concerned.
A rising number of medical tourists are using artificial intelligence for consultations and decision making regarding pre-travel arrangements, viable medical destinations, availability of treatments and comparing quality of care. The trend of using artificial intelligence is predicted to grow among medical tourists as it saves time and adds convenience.
Follow-Up Consults Via Telemedicine
Telemedicine is the use of ICT – Information, Communication and Technology – to provide medical and health care from another geographical location. Studies have shown that more and more clinics around the world are starting to implement their own system of telemedicine as one of the main concerns for medical tourists is what happens when they return to their home country after their medical care or treatment – specifically, how they will have their check-ups and follow-ups with their doctor or surgeon.
Telemedicine hopes to assuage these fears by working with both clinics and patients to offer follow-up care via Skype, video conferencing, video calls or even online chat platforms. By assuring geographically dispersed patients that they have access to follow-up care and consultations via telemedicine, it helps build confidence and ease anxieties about traveling abroad to receive medical care.
Telemedicine can also prove beneficial for clinics as it boosts customer satisfaction, which in turn provides positive feedback and referrals for the clinic, which gains more potential clients.
In conclusion, as the international medical tourism industry continues to grow and expand, various drivers and trends contribute to its growth and success by catering to current medical needs of potential medical tourists, offering health care in exotic and desirable locations to convalesce in; or implementing new technologies that help potential patients research treatments and clinics, and allow them follow-up care and consultations when they return back to their home country.