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The Rise of Medical Tourism

Nose jobs in Turkey. Dental implants in Mexico. Kidney transplants in India.

Photo by Pixabay

Patients around the world are increasingly opting for medical treatment abroad over health care at home. This trend, known as medical tourism, happens for varied reasons, with accompanying risks and mixed results.

The Reasons

Cost: Medical treatments may be significantly cheaper abroad than in an individual’s home country. This is especially true for elective surgeries such as cosmetic operations, dental procedures, fertility treatments, and organ transplants. For example, according to the AEDIT Medical Advisory Board, a rhinoplasty currently costs up to $20,000 in the US; up to $15,000 in Canada; up to $6000 in Colombia; and up to $3,600 in Japan.

Timing: Patients may manage to avoid long wait times for high-demand procedures by traveling to another country for care. In 2018, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reported that wait times for elective surgeries among member countries were the lowest in Denmark, whereas they were the highest in Chile. Some international health clinics have shorter wait times and less regulatory requirements, so scheduling a surgery abroad can be one way to skip the line at home.

Access: Part of medical tourism’s allure is that certain medical treatments are more accessible in certain countries. In some cases, a procedure that is restricted or illegal in someone’s home country may be more available beyond borders. For example, people seeking stem cell therapy are often drawn to the Caribbean, where there are fewer restrictions on this controversial practice.

Quality: Some international destinations are renowned for high-quality care, cutting-edge technologies, and state-of-the-art facilities. In 2019, the Medical Travel Quality Alliance’s list of the world’s best hospitals included facilities in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Germany, Thailand, Malaysia, Canada, and the Czech Republic. These hospitals reportedly have some of the greatest staff and equipment in the world.

Culture: People may be drawn to certain countries for the local languages, customs, and values. A location’s cultural environment can make medical travel more comfortable and even enjoyable. This is especially true for patients visiting destinations where they are more accustomed to the culture or more near to loved ones.

The Risks

Safety: Health care and hygiene standards vary across countries. In some cases, travelers may face an increased risk of surgical blunders or postoperative infections. The US Center for Disease Control reported in 2024 that the most common complications for medical tourists are bloodborne infections, donor-derived infections, and wound infections.

Regulation: Medical procedures that are unregulated abroad may be risky and even ethically questionable. Some governments choose to restrict controversial medical practices such as human embryonic stem cell therapy, genetic modification, or unproven cancer treatments. A lack of sufficient research or regulation may increase the dangers of undergoing such procedures.

Unfamiliarity: Receiving medical treatment amid an unfamiliar language, culture, and health care system could pose challenges for patients. Accurate information about medical procedures may be more difficult to find abroad, and misunderstandings could have dire consequences.

Recovery: Travel-related stress from jet lag, climate differences, or culture shock could impede the healing process. After returning home, patients may struggle to recover, especially if follow-up care is inadequate.

Expense: Although medical procedures abroad may be more affordable at the outset, they could turn out to be expensive in the long run, especially when factoring in travel costs. In the case of postoperative complications or expenses, insurance coverage may not apply, and compensation is not guaranteed.

The Results

Globalization: Medical tourism breaks down traditional borders and contributes to increased global travel, trade, and interconnectedness. Travel for medical purposes may broaden patients’ perspectives on health care.

Competition: As people become more aware of diverse treatment opportunities, they are more likely to compare and choose between options based on features such as cost and quality. This could lead to a more consumer-based health care market in which medical providers around the world compete to attract international patients, in turn increasing the quality and efficiency of care.

Reform: Competition in the health care market could place pressure on global health care systems to improve the services they offer. Policymakers may consider reforming their own health care systems, while insurance providers may shift toward more international coverage options.

Innovation: Increased medical travel could lead to increased sharing of medical technology across borders. The demand for cutting-edge treatments may drive medical research and innovation across the globe.

Inequality: Although medical tourism can be a cost-saving option, it may not be affordable for everyone. Those who have the funds to travel for treatment may take precedence over local patients and strain local health care systems. Medical tourism may therefore intensify the inequality in health outcomes among people of varying socioeconomic status.

Increasing numbers of patients are choosing to travel abroad for medical treatment. The results, on both personal and global scales, continue to unfold. For good or for bad, medical tourism will likely continue to reshape travel and health care for people around the world.