What is Medical Tourism?

Medical tourism is the term used when people travel abroad to get medical treatment. There can be many reasons why an individual might travel abroad for healthcare, such as cost, quality of care, and options for treatment.

Whilst it’s difficult to get an exact number for the number of people travelling abroad for medical treatment, it’s thought that there are around 50 million medical tourists worldwide per year. The global medical tourism market amounts to around $54 billion.

Read on to find out more about medical tourism, why it is deemed a risky activity by some and what an individual can do to minimise the risk.

What contributes to medical tourism?

One reason someone might travel abroad for healthcare is the cost. It may be that in their own country, healthcare is too expensive and they cannot afford to pay for treatment that they need. They could find that in another country, healthcare is much cheaper, or even free. This can apply to both medical treatment and also cosmetic surgery. For expats living overseas, health insurance worldwide can often negate the need to travel abroad to find cheaper healthcare.

Another reason why someone might travel abroad for healthcare is that there is more choice for treatment in another country. For example, someone looking for cancer treatment might find there are more procedures available overseas than in their current country, especially if they are using a public healthcare service, which is often limited.

Another factor that can cause someone to turn to medical tourism is wait times. Many countries that operate a public healthcare service find that wait times can be very long. Individuals often find travelling abroad for the same procedure can result in getting the treatment done much quicker. This can make it an attractive proposition for people who are looking for procedures that can eliminate pain or need urgent care.

Another reason for medical tourism is quality. If the healthcare in the individual’s country is of low quality, they may be able to receive better healthcare abroad. This can be especially attractive if the person has the means to pay for healthcare abroad and wants to avoid using local facilities.

What are the criticisms and risks of medical tourism?

As medical tourism has grown over the years, it has faced more and more criticism. Part of the negative attitude to medical tourism is due to the risks that are involved with travelling abroad for medical treatments.

Infection risks

One risk of travelling abroad for healthcare can be an increased risk of infection. Some countries may not have as strict regulations around infection control and hygiene practices. This increases the possibility of infection, which can be especially dangerous regarding blood-borne infections such as hepatitis B and HIV.

There can also be an increased risk of bacterial infections that are resistant to drugs. Some countries have an issue with overuse of antibiotics, which has led to certain infections such as bacterial, fungal, and viral infections not having effective treatment.

Quality issues

Some countries have lower regulations around the quality of care they provide. These can often be the countries that provide cheaper healthcare. However, the low costs can come with an increased risk of issues arising due to the quality of treatment.

There can also be a problem with counterfeit medication, especially in countries that may have fewer regulations around drugs. This can be dangerous for the individual as the medication will not meet the necessary standards and may be ineffective or even cause further health problems.  

Risk of air travel

Air travel can cause significant health problems, especially following procedures done on the chest. It is therefore vital that people who travel abroad for healthcare allow sufficient time to recover from the procedure before they travel home.

Follow-up care

Travelling abroad for healthcare can mean an individual does not receive the necessary follow-up care. If complications arise following the treatment, it may be difficult to get it properly dealt with once the individual is back home. This can be especially true if they have travelled overseas to source better quality healthcare or a specific procedure not provided in their home country.

Some countries do not have efficient legal routes for individuals to take in the case of malpractice. It could be that people are unbale to get adequate compensation if anything goes wrong during the procedure.

Individuals can also face legal issues if they seek out a procedure that is illegal in their home country. They could face prosecution when they return home.  

Ethical issues

There have been a number of ethical issues that have arisen from medical tourism, which have prompted people to criticise the practice. One major problem has been around the illegal purchase of organs for transplant. People who travel abroad for a transplant could find they are supporting this illegal trade.  

There has also been an issue around growing inequality of healthcare within countries that are popular for medical tourism. They have seen higher quality care given to the medical tourists, while local residents are left with poor quality treatment and facilities. Some have even been unable to access care at all, as practitioners are busy with medical tourists.

How can you reduce the risks of medical tourism?

Someone who is looking to travel overseas for medical treatment should always conduct thorough research before travelling. They should speak directly with the healthcare facility they are thinking of using and make sure to gather as much information about the procedure, recovery period, and their success rate as possible. You should also investigate the general healthcare quality of the country you’re travelling to, to gauge how good it is.

Individuals are also advised to have adequate travel insurance if they plan to travel abroad for healthcare. This helps to make sure they’re covered in the event that they need to extend their stay or need further medical treatment in addition to what was initially planned.

Expatriate Group provides both international healthcare for expats and travel insurance for travellers, with flexible, comprehensive policies. Contact us for more information or get a health insurance quote or travel insurance quote today.

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