Keith Pollard explains why we should abandon medical tourism


I’ve never been a great fan of the phrase “medical tourism”. It’s confusing and doesn’t really describe what most of the industry is about. For most people (outside of the industry) medical tourism suggests that someone is combining treatment with a holiday/vacation. But in many instances, this is not the case.

Nevertheless, it has crept into common usage. Or has it....?

The preferred industry term

This week’s IMTJ news features a report from Dr Prem Jagyasi on medical tourism. One of the conclusions of the report was that that the phrase “medical tourism” is the preferred industry term. The question we need to ask is whether it is the phrase that is actually in common usage (outside of as opposed to within the industry) and whether it is the best one to use.

The report suggests that “medical tourism is a term interchangeable with ‘medical travel’, ‘health travel’ and ‘health tourism’.” It quite clearly isn’t as it means very different things to different people in different segments of the market.

As measured by “online search engine share”

The report also goes on to present the “online search engine share” of the various terms in use, stating that “medical tourism takes a 65% share in online presence.” Having checked with Dr Jagyasi, I understand that this is what they actually measured – the number of web pages that contained the various terms. Here’s an analysis of the terms included in the report based on Dr Jagyasi’s logic. (Note: I have also included “health travel” which was omitted from his report.)

Term                                                 No of pages                    Share of total
medical tourism                                2,040,000                        54.6%

health travel                                      469,000                            12.6%

global healthcare                               462,000                            12.4%

health tourism                                   398,000                             10.7%

medical travel                                    279,000                             7.5%

value medical travel                           47,000                                 1.3%

healthcare travel                                 41,400                                1.1%
All terms                                              3,736,400                         100.0%

Note: Data obtained from

Now...this is not “online search engine share”. It is a measure of the extent to which people use the various phrases on web pages. And who writes those pages.... people within the industry.... and those people use the phrase medical tourism.

What am I getting at? Here are some healthcare examples that illustrate the doctor-patient language gap:

  •     Doctors and healthcare professionals talk about procedures; patients talk about their operation (or in the USA, their surgery).
  •     Doctors and healthcare professionals talk about discharge; patients talk about going home.
  •     Or if you want a medical (travel) example (and a true story!)...

    Doctor to a diabetic patient (who has an infected foot that is going to have to be amputated): “I don't think we're going to be able to deal with this with local treatments”
    Patient:  “Does that mean I'm going to have to go to Los Angeles for treatment?”

The real measure of popularity and “online search engine share”

The beauty of Google is that the way that people search provides a valuable insight into how people think, how they use words and how they speak. Many companies invest heavily in analysing consumer search behaviour as it is a great predictor of behaviour.

So, a real measure of “online search engine share” is to compare how people search – what terms they use to search and how often they use them. This is a reflection of consumer and patient language rather than the terms that an industry uses on its web pages. Measuring usage of terms in this way presents a very different picture:

Term                             Global searches per month              Share of total

health travel                         201,000                                      34.2%

medical travel                      165,000                                      28.0%

medical tourism                   165,000                                     28.0%

health tourism                      27,100                                      4.6%

global healthcare                  22,200                                      3.8%
healthcare travel                    8,100                                       1.4%
value medical travel               110                                          0.0%
All terms                              588,510                                    100.0%
Note: Data obtained from

So, if we assume that the way people search on Google is an indication of the way they think... then, we should probably accept that we are working in the health travel industry, or perhaps the medical travel industry. In this analysis, medical tourism is clearly not the term in common usage, sharing second place with medical travel. In the context of “health” and “medical”, “travel” is probably a far better partner than “tourism”, and is probably far more appropriate.

The analysis also raises real questions about the taxonomy/classification of the various segments of the health travel sector. And the need for the industry to clearly define what it’s about.  Now there’s a topic for a medical travel conference (...or should it be a health travel conference?). It’s worth reviewing the work done by Constantine Constantinides with his ht8 approach to segments of the medical tourism market.

So, should we start a “Campaign Against Medical Tourism”. Perhaps we should? But what do we replace it with? 


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