Why long term foreign growth is crucial for medical tourism


While surgical costs remain the driving force behind the adoption of medical tourism, the quality of medical care in emerging countries will dictate the continued success of this blossoming industry. Research shows that many US citizens are opposed to the high cost of treatment in their country, but remain anxious over the quality of care provided by foreign healthcare facilities, indicating the need for  performance data to prove the quality of foreign surgeries.

Rising healthcare costs in the developed economies of North America and Europe have led to the growing adoption of medical tourism, as countries such as Mexico, India, Thailand, and Turkey offer tempting price reductions of 25%-80% for foreigners.

However, low prices will not be enough to maintain the growth the industry has seen over the past decade. The quality of care, including the performance of surgeons and the long-term outcomes for patients, represents a vital component which will win the faith of potential customers, and spotlight the top-performing countries.

The need for comparative performance data

Performance data would be a key attraction for foreigners considering cut-rate surgical procedures: Registries of operations performed on foreigners and citizens could provide safety and efficacy data for various surgical procedures over several years of follow-up. Countries with strong results would have a much stronger argument for comparing their quality of healthcare with the Western world.

Nations currently advertise the quality of their healthcare through the educational background of their surgeons to medical tourists, who favour those trained to Western standards. However, the rate of return for Western-trained doctors to their native countries is very low given the promise of higher wages and clinical opportunities elsewhere, and so it remains unlikely that a medical tourist will encounter a surgeon trained by their Western standards. In India, for example, the return rate of Western-educated Indian doctors is so low that the government had to institute a “return bond” policy that ensured doctors would return after the completion of their studies. Certain countries have also begun to adopt countrywide healthcare quality assurance measures, such as those put in place by the Malaysian Society for Quality in Health. However, there are no guarantees that these regulations are on a par with the standards of more developed nations. 

Research by the Center for Medical Tourism Research has found that over half of US citizens surveyed did not feel comfortable receiving care outside the US. However, survey participants also cited the high cost of treatment in the US and the desire to be treated using advanced technology as top reasons for travelling abroad for treatment if given the opportunity. One of the lowest cited reasons for seeking care abroad was the desire for higher quality treatment, presenting an untapped opportunity in the market. Any emerging countries willing to invest in measuring and disclosing their medical abilities, proving their surgical performance as equal to that by surgeons in the US, would undoubtedly benefit from this public awareness.

Registries of procedures conducted could also lead to certain countries becoming associated with certain procedures. A registry would help to develop the reputation of a country’s medical expertise. A registry may find that Turkish surgeons outperform plastic surgeons in South Korea for a particular cosmetic procedure, despite these countries differing in overall medical reputation. Specialism in certain surgical techniques could see every nation carve out its own particular surgical niche.

Dream or reality?

However, in order to execute such registries a large administrative undertaking would have to be implemented by each country. Immediate outcomes of surgical success including infection rates and postoperative pain could be measured and recorded during the patient’s stay in the foreign country. However, continued contact with the patient would need to be established at sufficiently long follow up periods to administer a survey assessing the patient’s physical health for any postoperative complications or repeat surgeries.

If the typical responses for market research are applied to this scenario, then these surveys are only likely to receive anywhere from 25% to 30% response rates if administered by email. Such low response rates may not produce an accurate depiction of a country’s performance.



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