Whenever we hear the term “Medical Tourism”, it invokes a mixed expression in our minds, one as a promising new alternative for the people who had to rely on already outstretched Public healthcare system in western countries, and the second is the uncertainty about the quality offered. The portmanteau “Medical Tourism” was created way back in the late 80’s by Travel agents and media as a catchall phrase to describe a new trend where people travel to other countries to obtain cheaper medical care. As we speak, this phenomenon has reached to a point where it has become one of the most promising foreign exchange revenue earners in some Asian nations predominantly India, Singapore and Thailand.
The reasons patients travel for treatment vary. Many medical tourists from the United States are seeking treatment at a quarter or sometimes even a 10th of the cost at home. From Canada, it is often people who are frustrated by long waiting times. From Great Britain, the patient can’t wait for treatment by the National Health Service but also can’t afford to see a physician in private practice. For others, becoming a medical tourist is a chance to combine a tropical vacation with elective or plastic surgery.
And more patients are coming from poorer countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam, and many African nations, where treatment may not be available.
Medical tourism is actually thousands of years old. In ancient Greece, pilgrims and patients came from all over the Mediterranean to the sanctuary of the healing god, Asklepios, at Epidaurus. In Roman Britain, patients took the waters at a shrine at Bath, a practice that continued for 2,000 years. From the 18th century wealthy Europeans travelled to spas from Germany to the Nile. In the 21st century, relatively low-cost jet travel has taken the industry beyond the wealthy and desperate.
Countries that actively promote medical tourism include Cuba, Costa Rica, Hungary, India, Israel, Jordan, Lithuania, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. Belgium, Poland and Spain are now entering the field. South Africa specializes in medical safaris-visit the country for a safari, with a stopover for plastic surgery, a nose job and a chance to see lions and elephants.
India is considered the leading country promoting medical tourism-and now it is moving into a new area of “medical outsourcing,” where subcontractors provide services to the overburdened medical care systems in western countries.
India’s National Health Policy declares that treatment of foreign patients is legally an “export” and deemed “eligible for all fiscal incentives extended to export earnings.” Government and private sector studies in India estimate that medical tourism could bring between $1 billion and $2 billion US into the country by 2012. The reports estimate that medical tourism to India is growing by 30 per cent a year.
India’s top-rated education system is not only churning out computer programmers and engineers, but an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 doctors and nurses each year.
The largest of the estimated half-dozen medical corporations in India serving medical tourists is Apollo Hospital Groupwith 37 hospitals, with a total capacity of 7,000 beds, which performed an estimated 60,000 surgeries on visiting patients between 2001 and 2004, and now under negotiations with Britain’s National Health Service to work as a subcontractor, to do operations and medical tests for patients at a fraction of the cost in Britain for either government or private care.
Medical Tourism in India began to grow in the mid 1990s, with the deregulation of the Indian economy, which drastically cut the bureaucratic barriers to expansion and made it easier to import the most modern medical equipment. The first patients were Indian expatriates who returned home for treatment; major investment houses followed with money and then patients from Europe, the Middle East and Canada began to arrive.
While, so far, India has attracted patients from Europe, the Middle East and Canada, Thailand has been the goal for Americans.
India initially attracted people who had left that country for the West; Thailand treated western expatriates across Southeast Asia. Many of them worked for western companies and had the advantage of flexible, worldwide medical insurance plans geared specifically at the expatriate and overseas corporate markets.
With the growth of medical-related travel and aggressive marketing, Bangkok became a centre for medical tourism. Hospitals like Bangkok’s International Medical Center and Piyavate Hospital offer services in over two dozen languages, recognizes cultural and religious dietary restrictions and has a special wing for Japanese and Arabic patients.
Even though most of the medical tour companies targeting cosmetic surgery patients often put emphasis on the vacation aspects, offering post-recovery resort stays and holiday packages, private healthcare consulting companies, like, MedAsia Healthcare who specialize in critical care services like open heart surgeries had gone one step further by providing personalized care to the patients by offering surgeon screening, treatment planning, insurance support and even the surgery loan processing on behalf of the patients. With medical professionals who know the psyche of the patients, they can provide that extra comfort on quality and trust.
Other countries interested in medical tourism tended to start offering care to specific markets but have expanded their services as the demand grows around the world. Cuba, for example, first aimed its services at well-off patients from Central and South America and now attracts patients from Canada, Germany and Italy. Malaysia attracts patients from surrounding Southeast Asian countries; Jordan serves patients from the Middle East. Israel caters to both Jewish patients and people from some nearby countries, and South Africa offers package medical holiday deals with stays at either luxury hotels or safaris.
The newest and fastest-growing area of medical tourism is a visit to the dentist, where costs are often not covered by basic insurance and by only some extended insurance policies. India, Thailand and Hungary attract patients who want to combine a teeth whitening, extraction or root canal with a vacation. Most notable destination for Dental tourism is Thailand, where the competitions between the clinics for expatriate customers are clearly visible. In a way that competition is actually serving good for the customers, as the clinics deploy the latest cutting edge technologies, employ overseas trained and qualified doctors, and multi lingual marketing team to keep their edge on the market; says Dr. Bob of Bangkok Smile Dental Clinic, a pioneer in the dental tourism industry with multiple clinics in Bangkok. Clinics like Bangkok smile offers the latest same dental implants where by the patient can fly in and get the implant fixed on the same day and fly back on the next day instead of the 2 – 3 visits before, at their clinics for almost 15 – 30 % of the cost one would have to pay if they get it done in US, Canada, Australia or UK. As we speak, Australia is one of the biggest markets for these clinics, and tour companies like Aussie Dental Tours based in Perth, Australia are quick to realize that and offers escorted dentist visits to Thailand.