Importance and benefits of Medical Tourism
By Ike Ezugwu
Today’s competitive healthcare markets have become very competitive all over the world, especially with globalization. Consumers have more options in the selection of healthcare organizations, their services and costs as well as their country where they are sited. With increasing competition for patients, emphasis on disease prevention, health promotion, and the availability of more health-related information to consumers in recent years, it is clear that patients have become better informed. Medical Tourism Facilitators have also sprung up in many countries to help patients and consumers get the best services.
Medical Tourism – also called Medical Travel, Health Tourism or Global Healthcare – refers to the travel of people to another country for the purpose of obtaining medical treatment in that country. Traditionally, people would travel from less-developed countries to major medical centers in highly developed countries for medical treatment that was unavailable in their own communities; the recent trend is for people to travel from developed countries to third-world countries for medical treatments because of cost consideration, though the traditional pattern still continues. Another reason for travel for medical treatment is that some treatments may not be legal in the home country, such as some fertility procedures.
Though used interchangeably with Medical Tourism by many, Health tourism is considered a wider term for travels that focus on medical treatments and the utilization of healthcare services. It spans a wide field of health-oriented tourism ranging from preventive and health-conductive to rehabilitational and curative forms of travel; the latter being commonly referred to as Medical tourism. Wellness tourism is another related field. Circumvention tourism is also an area of medical tourism that has grown. Circumvention tourism is travel made in order to access medical services that are legal in the destination country but illegal in the home country. This can include travel for fertility treatments that aren’t yet approved in the home country, abortion, and doctor-assisted suicide. Abortion tourism can be found most commonly in Europe, where travel between countries is relatively simple. Ireland and Poland, two European countries with highly restrictive abortion laws, have the highest rates of circumvention tourism. In Poland especially, it is estimated that each year nearly 7,000 women travel to the UK, where abortion services are free through the National Health Service. There are also efforts being made by independent organizations and doctors, such as with Women on Waves, to help women circumvent draconian laws in order to access medical services. Women on Waves uses a mobile clinic aboard a ship to provide medical abortions in international waters, where the law of the country whose flag is flown applies.
Why do people embrace Health Tourism?
Thousands of years ago, cases of medical or health tourism were recorded. “The first recorded instance of people traveling to obtain medical treatment dates back thousands of years to when Greek pilgrims traveled from all over the Mediterranean to the small territory in the Saronic Gulf called Epidauria. This territory was the sanctuary of the healing god Asklepios. Spa towns and sanitariums may be considered an early form of medical tourism. In 18th-century England, for example, patients visited spas because they were places with supposedly health-giving mineral waters, treating diseases from gout to liver disorders and bronchitis” (Wikipedia.com)
People go for health tourism for various reasons. Some people travel to obtain medical surgeries or other treatments. Some people go abroad for dental tourism or fertility tourism. People with rare genetic disorders may travel to another country where treatment of these conditions is better understood. However, virtually every type of health care, including psychiatry, alternative treatments, convalescent care and even burial services are available.
Factors that have led to the increasing popularity of medical travel include the high cost of health care, long wait times for certain procedures, the ease and affordability of international travel, and improvements in both technology and standards of care in many countries. The avoidance of waiting times is the leading factor for medical tourism from the UK, whereas in the US, the main reason is cheaper prices abroad.
Many surgery procedures performed in medical tourism destinations cost a fraction of the price they do in other countries. For example, a liver transplant that costs US$300,000 in America costs about 91,000 USD in Taiwan. A large draw to medical travel is convenience and speed. Countries that operate public health-care systems often have long wait times for certain operations. Using Canada as an example, an estimated 782,936 Canadians spent time on medical waiting lists in 2005, waiting an average of 9.4 week. Canada has set waiting-time benchmarks, e. g. 26 weeks for a hip replacement and 16 weeks for cataract surgery, for non-urgent medical procedures.
In First World countries such as the United States, medical tourism has large growth prospects and potentially destabilizing implications. A forecast by Deloitte Consulting published in August 2008 projected that medical tourism originating in the US could jump by a factor of ten over the next decade. An estimated 750,000 Americans went abroad for health care in 2007, and the report estimated that 1.5 million would seek health care outside the US in 2008. The growth in medical tourism has the potential to cost US health care providers billions of dollars in lost revenue.
An authority at the Harvard Business School stated that “medical tourism is promoted much more heavily in the United Kingdom than in the United States”.
Additionally, some patients in some First World countries are finding that insurance either does not cover orthopedic surgery (such as knee or hip replacement) or limits the choice of the facility, surgeon, or prosthetics to be used.
Which countries do people choose and why?
People prefer some particular countries as health-tourism destinations because of the following reasons:
- Natural beauty and tourism potentials of the country
- Cost of medical treatment in the country. They compare the costs of the treatment sought abroad with what is obtainable in their own country.
- Some also consider the cultural richness of the country of destination.
- Advice, Feedback and referrals from friends and relatives that had traveled for health tourism.
- When specialized healthcare is needed and is unavailable, inadequate or prohibitively expensive in their countries.
What process is required?
Typically, the process is follows this pattern: the person seeking medical treatment abroad contacts a medical tourism provider or health tourism facilitators, who is commonly referred to as a “facilitator”. The facilitator usually requires the patient to provide a medical report, including the nature of ailment, local doctor’s opinion, medical history, and diagnosis, and may request additional information, such as x-rays or diagnostic testing results. Certified physicians or consultants may advise on the medical treatment or recommend an initial consultation with a specialist. The approximate cost of treatment, the choice of doctor and hospital, expected duration of stay, and logistical information, such as accommodation, ground transportation, and flights are discussed as well. A patient may be asked to pay an upfront deposit for treatment. For those destinations which require a visa, the patient will be given recommendation letters for a medical visa for the relevant embassy. The patient travels to the destination country, where the medical tourism provider may assign a case executive, who takes care of on the ground experience, including translation, accommodation, and arranging aftercare. In the cases where patients self-pay for medical treatment, a final treatment bill will be presented upon completion of treatment. If the patient underwent surgery, there may be additional post-operative checks to discharge the patient and deem him or her “fit for flight” for the return home trip.
Medical tourism carries some risks that locally provided medical care does not and it is best handled by a renowned facilitator. For instance, receiving medical care abroad may subject medical tourists to unfamiliar legal and cultural issues. The limited nature of litigation in various countries is one reason for the lower cost of care overseas. While some countries currently presenting themselves as attractive medical tourism destinations provide some form of legal remedies for medical malpractice, these legal avenues may be unappealing to the medical tourist. Should problems arise, patients might not be covered by adequate personal insurance or might be unable to seek compensation via malpractice lawsuits.
Why is India a preferred health tourism destination?
India is the hottest and most sought after emerging destination catering to the vastly flourishing medical tourism industry.
People from all walks of life cut across the entire span of the globe and travel to India for their treatment to be done to experience most the competent and world class medical services. India has some of the most highly qualified and experienced physicians in the world. The medical facilities present in the high end hospitals of India are at par with state of the art hospitals present in western countries.
Hospitals in India “are equipped with latest of the technology and the physicians have super specialization in their respective specialties. In addition to the allopathic and modern medicine India boasts of several other traditional medicine options like ayurveda, naturopathy, homeopathy, unani and yoga.”
Apart from the medical part, India is also a major attraction for tourists, courtesy its rich cultural and monumental heritage. Destinations like Taj Mahal, beaches of Goa, backwaters of Kerala, hiking in the Himalayas and shopping in Rajasthan attracts huge number of tourists from all over the world.
The cost of medical and health services of international standard is low in India. Going to India for medical treatment saves cost as against seeking the same services from hospitals in developed western countries. This remains a major consideration and the biggest motivating factors for people who travel to India for medical treatment. “For an example the cost of an elective knee surgery is almost 40-60% less in India than US including the stay in the hospital, all procedures and surgeon’s fee including transportation to and from India.”
Credit: Thanks to wikipedia.org; anavara.com; academia.edu and indushealthplus.com for information and insights.