Unclear international standards hold back medical tourism


Some international bodies have shown an interest in setting up some rules, clear definitions, directions and standards on medical travel, in an effort to position themselves as a global referral point for this market.  None have succeeded yet, and there remains an array of measurement approaches, standards and regulations which are holding back development in the sector.

Sector definitions mask market accuracy

Although to some, the various definitions of medical travel do not really matter as long as it is an existing market if you look carefully there can be a lot of difference in the meanings of terms such as medical tourism, health tourism, medical travel, cross-border healthcare and international healthcare.

When speaking about medical tourism or health travel, some destinations do not make a distinction between domestic medical travellers and those who travel from abroad.  Some countries incorporate these domestic numbers and revenue into reports on their medical tourism sector, and this can be misleading for business planners looking for accurate data on the international medical travel market.

Just using the term “cross-border healthcare” however leaves aside revenue and data coming from local medical travellers, while “international healthcare” could be seen as too broad, as it tends to include medicine, insurance, tech and other sectors also involved in healthcare.

Country-to-country measurement variation 

In addition to the different definitions, the use of these metrics varies from country to country. In Turkey, for example, when returning (even first generation) citizens who live abroad travel back for treatment, they are categorised as medical tourists. In Thailand, any treatment provided in just one visit is recorded as a “new” patient. Governments and regional boards often struggle to gather accurate data from medical providers, not helped by the fact that in some countries, providers hide their actual data in order to avoid heavy taxes. 

Counting medical visas, where countries issue them, does not reflect all cases of patients who travel for health treatment reasons, and on the rare occasions where does, it is next to impossible to gather further data (e.g. type of treatment, prices etc.). 

There also remains a wide variation between countries in metrics to measure healthcare quality, although it is reassuring that international accreditation organisations are playing a significant role in setting standards. 

Unclear medical travel sector regulation

Although the role of a medical travel facilitator is clearer today than it has been in the past, the regulation of these businesses is still confusing. So far, no international health or health tourism authority/body has taken the responsibility of creating global standards or a public record where international facilitators can register and prove their legal existence.  

Accreditation organisations are offering certifications for this market, but facilitators look at this with scepticism as they think that a costly accreditation process will be required, which most of them won’t be able to afford, either to obtain or maintain it.   

Arguably technology could, in the end, eliminate some medical travel facilitators, with hospitals, clinics and comparison sites publishing transparent and detailed treatment information that the patient wants in order to feel safe and reassured about the quality and the processes.  The future will tell!

Other market influencers: medical data, insurance and advertising regulation

In terms of ease of transfer of patients’ medical records, most of the participants at the 6th Annual Medical Tourism Conference & Workshop believed that technology and regulation have responded already and that this has now been solved.  The doubt remains however whether all countries or individuals would allow free access to medical data by different hospitals or agents from another country.

Insurance for medical travellers used to be seen as an obstacle to treatment abroad, but this is being resolved, as insurance companies and brokers are slowly undertaking this role. The development of these insurance products has been slow due to insurance companies falsely assuming that the risk has to be taken in a foreign country and the fee has to be adjusted to the local economy. Estimating the risk in one amount rather than analysing the patient risk at each destination has made it easier.  The existence of insurance in medical travel packages has not been seen as either necessary or part of a standard policy for most medical travel providers, and this is only starting to change now.

Finally, an international advertisement framework to promote healthcare also remains clouded, since the providers need to overcome the local rules of their countries (some of which are opposed to any kind of advertisement). For the time being, most medical travel providers are mainly acting “by habit” rather than following any international legislation on advertising.



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