Working out which nationalities go where for medical treatment is an intriguing question. Speaking at a recent medical tourism seminar at the University of Texas, USA, a Texas based medical tourism agent Deepak Datta of Medical Tourism Corporation
, shared his insights with a class of MBA business students. He discussed the current trends in medical tourism and the various factors that have fueled globalization of healthcare in the past decade.
Deepak Datta discounted the myth that medical tourism is about flying thousands of miles across continents, “Medical tourism is a regional phenomenon, with most medical tourists preferring to visit nearby countries for their healthcare needs. While Americans and Canadians mostly head to Mexico and Costa Rica, people from Africa and the Middle East prefer to go to India. Korea is the medical destination of choice for many people from Japan, while Thailand is the top choice for most Australians.”
Datta went on to explain why medical tourism is regional, “Price, safety, travel distance, visa rules, local laws and quality of healthcare are obviously the chief considerations for medical tourists while deciding their healthcare destination, but cultural influence is important. While US Hispanics head to Mexico, the British prefer other European countries.”
He explained why there is some global medical tourism for certain specialties, “A destination’s reputation for a particular medical service also matters and some countries are more popular for certain procedures than others. Surrogacy in India attracts foreigners struggling with infertility issues.’’
An issue often wrongly dismissed by analysts is cross-border healthcare. Datta commented, “Low cost dental treatment and weight loss surgery in Mexico are preferred by Americans and Canadians, who do not want to travel too far for healthcare. Many Americans prefer to drive down to the border, get their root canals or dental implants in US-Mexico border clinics (which have mushroomed at a remarkable rate over the past few years) and return home the same day.”
Central and South America, not Asia, are the destinations for many Americans, he explained, “Many people opt to get their dental implants in Costa Rica. They fly to get bariatric and cosmetic surgery in these Latin American countries, because not only the prices are low, but also the treatments are high quality. Realizing the potential of medical tourism, the doctors are prepared to deal with medical tourists and accordingly arrange for English-speaking staff. While the official and most commonly used language in Costa Rica is Spanish, it is not difficult to find a dentist or cosmetic surgeon in Costa Rica, who is fluent in English.”
The attractions of Thailand were next up, “Low priced cosmetic surgery in Thailand is also a big draw for medical tourists as they not only get the cost advantage but also get to maintain privacy for their beauty enhancing treatments. Thailand, however, is preferred more by Australians as the distance is less and flights are relatively convenient. Who wants to wait in long lines to see the dentists, when you can get immediate dental implants in Thailand at less than half the price?”
Medical tourism is often regarded as travelling for surgery, but this is not the bulk of medical tourism, said Datta, “Elective procedures like weight loss surgery, cosmetic surgery, fertility treatment and dental care are the most common medical services people travel for. This is probably because these are generally excluded from insurance coverage and a medical tourist is usually self-paying.”
He went to explain why there is some surgical tourism, “Hospitals also get many foreign patients who are looking for major surgery because either hospitals in their home country are too busy to quickly give them an appointment and relieve their pain or they are too expensive in those countries without free medical care.”
Datta dispelled the impression that medical tourism is a fast growing phenomenon, as many medical tourism agencies in North America have closed due to lack of business.
He pointed out that there is no reliable data gathering methodology to validate the number of medical tourists, as countries and hospitals often include expatriates, home returning non-residents, tourists and business travellers having emergency medical services, as ‘medical tourists’ to boost the real figures, while spa and wellness travellers, are sometimes counted as medical tourists and sometimes not.
The MBA students learnt about the challenges faced by patients and hospitals in the globalization of healthcare industry, which include the absence of any global standard patient outcome data, no clear cut follow-up regimen, language and cultural differences, safety issues at medical destinations, long travel, and complex visa laws in some countries; lack of follow up care, and how insurance companies have dismissed the concept.
On the US market, Datta states, "The US probably benefits the most from the medical tourism industry, as thousands of patients from different parts of the world visit leading American hospitals like MD Anderson Cancer Center, Jackson Memorial Hospital, Cleveland Clinic, Mayo Clinic, John Hopkins, Harvard Medical, and others. Most of these patients are either wealthy individuals or sponsored by their home governments.”