What is medical tourism?
Medical tourism, also known as health tourism or medical travel, is the practice of individual patients leaving their country of residence to seek medical care in another country. The medical treatment may be the primary motivation for travel or may be incidental to a planned trip abroad.
Patients looking to choose a doctor or hospital abroad have many resources available to them: the experiences of other patients, the network of their local family physician, and experienced medical travel facilitators. There also exists a wealth of information available online (hello!) that helps patients make informed decisions concerning their healthcare. This information ranges from hospital locations to procedure details and cost comparisons, as well as medical tourist patient reviews and forums.
The number, in millions, of medical travelers per year
Medical tourism patient flows
Medical tourism is a global industry. We at MEDIGO have helped patients from 180 countries to receive treatment abroad. Nonetheless, some patient flows are much more common than others.
Medical travel destinations depend on where patients come from and what type of medical procedure they are looking for. The infographic below shows the primary reason for travel (quality or cost) and the most common patient routes (source and destination).
In some countries, such as Australia and the United Kingdom, complex procedures are covered by state health insurance, but patients face significant waiting times, while other procedures must paid out of pocket (such as dental implants or LASIK). In the United States, patients travel for reasons of cost for everything from relatively simple procedures, like a teeth whitening, to very complex procedures, like a coronary artery bypass graft (CABG). In Russia and countries in the Middle East, patients primarily seek access to higher-quality medical care.
Is there a price difference for treatments abroad?
Usually, yes, but this depends on a number of factors, such as the treatment being sought and the services needed in the destination country. The cost of medical care varies from hospital to hospital, all around the world. Accordingly, it is very important for people who are considering treatment abroad to receive an upfront treatment plan and a personalized quote from a doctor.
The cost of treatment can vary based on each individual's previous medical history and needs. Generally, patients who seek affordable healthcare destinations are able to find cost savings of 20% to 80% after all expenses (travel, food, accommodations, and treatment) have been paid.
Dental implant prices around the world
The most popular procedure for medical tourists is dental implants. This is primarily driven by people from the US, Western Europe, and Australia who seek more affordable options elsewhere. The cost of dental implants can vary widely; to understand why, read the Ultimate Guide to Dental Implant Prices.
What are popular procedures for medical tourism?
Patients are becoming increasingly aware of their medical treatment options. This means that traditionally popular elective cosmetic treatments are now less common than dentistry, while ophthalmology procedures are also very popular, largely because of the high standards and, thus, cost savings of receiving treatment abroad.
Another trend is that as out-of-pocket health spending is increasing (in the US), and with waiting lists limiting access to treatment (in the UK and Ireland), patients are looking abroad to receive more complex orthopedics and cardiology procedures.
The top 10 medical tourism specialties
- Dentistry (Dental Implants, Veneers, Crowns)
- Plastic Surgery (Liposuction, Breast Implants, Rhinoplasty)
- Ophthalmology (LASIK, LASEK, Cataract Surgery)
- Hair Restoration (Hair Transplant)
- Bariatric Surgery (Gastric Sleeve, Gastric Bypass)
- Reproductive Medicine (In Vitro Fertilization [IVF])
- Orthopedics (Knee Replacement, Hip Replacement, Spine Surgery)
- Dermatology (Mole Removal, Acne Treatment)
- Cardiology (CABG Surgery, Heart Valve Replacement)
- Oncology (Breast Cancer Treatment, Chemotherapy)
What are popular destinations for medical tourists?
The top 10 destination countries
Thailand is the most popular medical tourism destination in the world because of its high quality care and its attractiveness as a holiday destination.
Dentistry, hair restoration, and plastic and cosmetic surgery are the most common treatments sought, while Australians, Americans, French, and British citizens are the most likely to book treatment in Thailand.
Hungary is very popular with medical tourists from France, the UK, the US, and Italy, and patients most commonly travel to Hungary to receive dental implants.
Dentistry, hair restoration, and liposuction are the main treatment categories sought in Hungary.
In third place, Spain is most sought by patients seeking ophthalmology, dentistry, and reproductive medicine.
Medical tourists traveling to Spain most often come from the UK, followed by Algeria, the US, and France.
Poland is the fourth most popular destination country, largely thanks to people seeking various forms of dentistry (with ophthalmology and reproductive medicine a distant second and third respectively).
The UK, Germany, Norway, and Switzerland are the most common source countries.
The most popular destination country in the Americas is Mexico.
Dentistry is by far the most likely treatment to be sought, and medical tourists traveling to Mexico almost exclusively come the the US or Canada.
Turkey is a premier destination for hair transplants and for various ophthalmology procedures.
Its location means it can attract medical tourists from many parts of the world. The most common patient source countries are the UK, France, the US, Algeria, Russia, and Saudi Arabia.
Germany attracts patients with complex conditions: Oncology, orthopedics, cardiology, and neurology are the most common treatment categories.
Patients to Germany most often come from Russia (27,000/year), the Netherlands (26,000/year), Belgium (18,500/year), and the UAE (17,000/year).
#10 Costa Rica
Destinations such as Thailand, Malaysia, Mexico, Turkey, Spain, Poland, and Hungary have established themselves as providers of medical care at the highest international standards. Most of these countries' top hospitals hold international accreditations.
The most recognized international accreditations are the Joint Commission International (JCI), Temos, and various others accreditations recognized by the International Society for Quality in Health Care (ISQua). These accreditations signify that hospitals or clinics provide reliable and safe healthcare services that meet international standards. (Read more about which quality criteria are considered when accrediting hospitals in our article, "How to Check an International Hospital's Accreditations", here.)
National or regional accreditations are also valuable in the research phase, as they ensure clinics or hospitals meet uniform standards. For instance, many dental clinics in Mexico are accredited by the American Dental Association (ADA), while Mexico's national dental association is the Asociación Dental Mexicana (ADM).
Other common accreditations include those set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). For example, ISO 9001 demonstrates a clinic or hospital's ability to consistently meet general customer and regulatory requirements.
What is the size of the medical tourism industry?
There are no precise numbers available for the industry. The OECD estimates that 30-50 million people travel abroad for treatment each year. We think that's unlikely: Our estimate puts the number at 7 million medical tourists annually (contact us if you want to discuss this).
In terms of market size and growth, we put the current medical tourism market size at $120 billion, and our estimate is that the industry is growing by 20% each year. Accordingly, in 2020 the medical tourism industry will be valued at $256 billion.