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Medical Tourism Gets a Facelift... and Perhaps a Pacemaker

1.25 M Americans will Travel Outside the U.S. for Medical Treatment This Year

Medical Tourism is not a new phenomenon, but it is taking on a completely different persona to what was earlier envisaged. Many healthcare systems – in the U.S., U.K. and Germany – are undergoing significant challenges: waiting lists, shifting priorities for healthcare, tightened eligibility criteria, etc. Today, with the globalization of information and the empowerment of the consumer, medical tourism involves individuals acting as a consumer, making their own decisions regarding their health needs, deciphering how they can best be treated, and then finding the most appropriate provider.

Conversely, many countries across the world are getting more competitive and developing their own health tourism strategy – competing on quality and price. For example, Korea is now being labeled the plastic surgery mecca of the world. Korean doctors are some of the best in the world, and their technology is top of the class. Plastic surgery no longer has the connotation of a female only phenomenon as males make up almost 30 percent of all patients. Foreign patients, largely from China, account for almost 50 percent of the total number of patients in some of the top plastic surgery centers. Hotels, such as the Ritz-Carlton Seoul, have even partnered with hospitals offering an $88,000 "anti-aging beauty package."

Medical Tourism is no longer for the Affluent or for Elective Procedures

Supported by disruption caused in the aviation industry via low cost airlines and social media, the flow of patients from developed nations to other regions makes medical tourism a considerable norm rather than something reserved only for the affluent. In addition, a large number of medical tourists are immigrants to the U.S., returning to their home country for care.

Although the exact market size of the medical tourism market is difficult to predict, recent Frost & Sullivan research predicts the market at around $50 billion to $65 billion dollars in 2014, growing at approximately 20 percent.

The below graphic shows the top 14 medical tourism destinations by volume of patients.

Asia is and has been a popular destination for elective and cosmetic procedures, but in recent years, this trend has expanded to include more complex procedures. An increasing pool of patients are opting to have heart and orthopedic procedures performed in countries like Singapore and India.

There is growing interest in other types of health services like alternative medicine, holistic and wellness programs other than Western treatment and procedures. Alternative medicine such as Ayurveda, acupuncture and homeopathy are gaining popularity among medical tourists. Other recent developments have been the emergence of new medical tourism destinations like South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines. These destinations are challenging the traditional players in South East Asia.

U.S. providers, particularly teaching hospitals, are expanding their global footprint through either partnerships or green field ventures to capture a share of the medical tourism pie. As regulatory bodies like the U.S. Federal Drug Administration (FDA), CE Marking and the China Food and Drug Administration (CFDA) that approve the sale of new technologies continue to become more stringent and delay access to new treatments, it is possible other countries and regions could become the go-to hub for cutting edge care. Already, India and Singapore have become the standard model for cardiac care, globally.

Today, medical tourism is no longer about cheaper procedures and holiday trips. It is also about the quality of doctors and technology, and care models that many of these countries are pursuing that make this form of health tourism different.


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