Medical tourism: doctoring your figures

Many countries want a share of this huge market. Recently, South Korea cited medical tourism as the next big thing for the nation’s travel industry

November 22, 2012 | By:

You can get your eyes lasered in India, hips replaced in Belgium, and new teeth in Malaysia. Oliver Bennett reports on the countries muscling in on medical tourism

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Travelling for the benefit of one’s health is hardly a new phenomenon. After the Napoleonic War in 1815, there was a boom of Brits travelling to Europe to get themselves fixed up. Davos in Switzerland, for example, was consumption central at the turn of the century, prior to becoming a world-leader hangout.

One hundred years on, there’s a massive, further boom in medical tourism. In 2008, McKinsey & Co predicted that the global medical tourism market would be the equivalent of $100 billion in 2012.

“It’s certainly a mature market,” says Keith Pollard of Treatment Abroad, a company that in 2010 helped about 60,000 UK patients travel abroad for a variety of reasons, primarily cosmetic surgery, dentistry, obesity and infertility, treatments that are expensive or circumscribed in the UK.


“It’s a sign of how it has grown that there is now specialist insurance, with Passport to Health,” says Pollard, “as well as an EU Directive allowing cross-border healthcare.

Seeking a share

Naturally, many countries want a share of this huge market. Recently, Korea Tourism Organisation of South Korea cited medical tourism as the next big thing for the nation’s travel industry, with “unlimited growth potential”.

JTB Corp, Japan’s largest travel agency, established the Japan Medical & Health Tourism Centre in 2010, trying to get a slice of the market. Central America is becoming a huge medical tourism centre, with Costa Rica generating nearly US$298 million per year and the number of patients rising.

Most medical tourism is in the ‘quality of life’ realm, as with Pollard’s cosmetic surgery seekers, but it can be serious, too: El Salvador has a new Cancer International Centre.

Of course, all medical tourism providers should be thoroughly researched before you leave these shores for treatment. But there is a segment of the market that pushes the spa and wellness ethos a step further.

Take the Grand Park Hotel Bad Hofgastein in Austria, which offers ‘Gastein Cave therapy’ and claims to be the biggest pain management centre in the world.

In a similar spirit of ‘wellness‘, the Barceló Fuerteventura Thalasso Spa in the Canary Islands has launched an integrated touchscreen nutritional programme. In St Lucia, The BodyHoliday is offering CACI – an alternative to Botox – to guests at its 33-room Wellness Centre.

Dental tourism

One of the most common motivations for medical tourism is dentistry: a field in which the UK is (as many of us ruefully know) expensive. Hungary is a major player in dentistry. “Hungarian dental tourism is a great way for you to discover a new place while saving money and receiving dental treatment,” says a spokesperson for Debrecen Implant Dental, in the country’s second city.

As with much medical tourism, DID can wrap a tourism rigmarole around your operation, so that you can enjoy the local food, wine and spa treatments before or after treatment.

Malaysia, an increasingly big medical tourism provider with a helpful website, Malaysia Healthcare, that pulls together many of the country’s providers, emphasises the relative costs of healthcare at home as opposed to away. A tummy tuck costs the patient $5,000-6,000 in the US but only $600-1,400 in Malaysia. You can have a trek in the jungle, too, with a ‘recovery package’, as these things are known.

In South Africa, lower-cost plastic surgery can be followed by a safari. A big incentive for these is that you can fudge the reason for your visit, come back looking better than when you left, and no one need know the truth.

Consider the after-care

What are the hitches? Well, the British Medical Association (BMA) says that people should always sound out their GP before and after treatment. It warns of issues about continuity of care should patients need treatment after returning home.

But medical tourism isn’t going away any time soon. It is driven partly by globalisation, partly by our greater mobility, but also by a new consumer ethos with regard to medical care.

There is an ageing population in the UK that outstrips the availability of quality healthcare resources. So we’re being pushed to find it elsewhere, and pulled by glossy brochures that show the step from gleaming operation to luxurious recuperation.

Points to consider

Think carefully about your emotional needs before and after treatment, and whether you’d actually prefer access to your home.

Compare costs. Some companies include the cost of travel and accommodation in quotes, others don’t.

Budget for flights, if it’s not included.

Think about how long you’ll need to stay and the price of accommodation if you can’t fly home for weeks after an operation.

Do serious research. Check your surgeon’s qualifications and whether action has ever been taken against them by the country’s watchdog bodies (such as the UK’s General Medical Council). Don’t only take the word of the provider, or people with financial interests in getting your business.

Consider whether language is an issue and whether translators are available.

Be careful. If something goes wrong and you can’t speak the language and are far away from home, be sure there are procedures in place to bail you out.

Check the availability of treatment at home, whether on the NHS or with UK providers: we are ourselves a big provider of medical tourism.