Over the past two years, with ballooning national deficits and high unemployment rates, looking for growth in any industry has become something far easier said than done. Not so for the medical tourism industry, however, which is showing robust growth. In 2007, 750,000 Americans traveled abroad to receive medical care. By 2012, that figure is expected to more than double, to 1.6 million.
The term “medical tourism” was contrived by travel agencies to describe the act of traveling to receive medical attention. The inherent frivolity that accompanies the term “tourism” was seized upon by some healthcare providers and media outlets to belittle the practice. According to Vivian Cho, Chief Development officer of the Medical Tourism Association (MTA), efforts to rebrand the industry seemed futile. Receiving medical care and traveling were two priorities that were perceived as distant and incongruous. However, MTA embraced the term and was able to counter the pejorative use of it by taking advantage of the sometimes contradictory desires both to save money and to see new places.
Although outbound medical tourism (U.S. patients traveling to other countries for medical care) is nascent, the practice itself is anything but. Asklepios, the Greek god of healing, was said to dwell in the Saronic Gulf and Greeks travelled from all over the Mediterranean to seek medical attention. Much later, spa towns in England for the treatment of a variety of ailments and sanitariums in Arizona for the treatment of tuberculosis could be considered early forms of the practice. History shows that people will always be willing to travel in order to relieve pain, save money and expand their levels of comfort. It should be no surprise then that this industry is poised to capitalize on our contemporary situation by simply providing a service that has been sought throughout antiquity.
For most Americans, however, the notion of going abroad for medical care was virtually unheard until recently. After all, why go somewhere else when the world’s best medical care can be had at home? It is a notion that has been underpinned by America’s standing as a leading world power, its own vanity and a strong core of truth. But it has also been supported by a concern that elsewhere, medical care is simply not up to U.S. standards.
But as foreign countries improve facilities and U.S.-trained physicians come back home to practice, that concern is rapidly diminishing. For example, the Joint Commission International (JCI) is the international division of Joint Commission Resources, a non-profit organization that provides services to hospitals, ambulatory facilities and laboratories looking to improve patient care and gain accreditation from the body. According to a survey produced by Deloitte’s Center for Health Solutions, JCI had over 220 approved medical sites outside of the U.S. in 2008 and the number is growing.
Likewise, the United States has long been a primary destination for foreign doctors looking to get trained. But as many of those same doctors then go home to practice, they bring U.S. standards of care with them. Over time, this has created an unusual pairing of skilled medical professionals and accredited healthcare facilities, but in countries with economies that charge a fraction of the price for medical care than what is charged in America.
When these factors are taken into consideration, combined with Americans’ newfound sense of frugality, an increase in medical tourism seems almost inevitable.
Deloitte’s report states that medical tourism had reduced growth in 2008-2009 (growth is the operative word here) due to the recession but it is on track to resume rapid growth in 2010. As the recession forced many Americans to become much more savvy consumers, it also set the groundwork for expanding the medical tourism industry.
In the past, medical tourism tended to conjure images of adventurous individuals traveling to foreign countries to undergo fairly safe procedures such as dental cosmetics. Less fashionably, it suggested individuals who would leave the country for operations that were either illegal at home or were culturally taboo, such as sex change operations.