What is Medical Tourism?

Medical tourism is the practice of traveling across international borders to obtain healthcare and is an industry that continues to grow in popularity each year. Today, around fifty countries list medical tourism as a national industry. In 2007, over 750,000 American traveled abroad for healthcare and in 2008, this number was estimated at 1.5 million. But why are so many people going outside of their home countries for healthcare procedures and what are the risks and benefits of doing so?

Medical tourism is not a new practice. People have been traveling to other parts of the world to seek medical treatment for hundreds of years. For example, spa towns were once situated around mineral spas that were believed to cure anything from gout to bronchitis and drew crowds of people from around the world seeking relief from their illnesses. Sanitariums were also historically famous retreats that provided high altitude and fresh air to tuberculosis patients before the use of antibiotics became standard.

But today, healthcare treatments sought by medical tourists include elective procedures, complex specialized surgeries and even plastic surgery. The most popular procedure is a hip or knee replacement surgery. The reasons behind medical tourism include rising healthcare costs in own country, long wait times, specialized improvements in care in other countries, unreasonable restrictions placed on patients and more. For example, it was reported that in 2005, 780,000 Canadians waited an average 9.4 weeks for a procedure. Canada has also released wait benchmarks for non-urgent procedures. But by traveling to another country, a person could choose their physician, receive immediate care and potentially save money. According to a publication from the University of Delaware, "the cost of surgery in India, Thailand or South Africa can be one-tenth of what it is in the United States or Western Europe, and sometimes even less. A heart-valve replacement that would cost $200,000 or more in the U.S., goes for $10,000 in India – and that includes round-trip airfare and a brief vacation package."

But with traveling abroad for less expensive, specialized or timelier healthcare comes greater risks. Many patients are unaware of the quality of care standards in specific countries. Also, with so many patients leaving the United States, our healthcare industry is losing money, which could result in a loss of jobs for American healthcare workers. So before you plan a trip abroad to receive medical attention, research the country, their healthcare policies and laws, and the rights of foreign medical patients.

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