Medical Tourism: A Growing Health Trend

Medical tourism refers to the practice of individuals going abroad to receive medical, dental, or cosmetic services.  From the perspective of Americans, medical tourism is a rapidly growing trend, in which patients seek out high-quality and low cost healthcare in foreign countries (such as India, Thailand, or Costa Rica), since they do not possess the means to pay for the desired (or needed) medical services here in the U.S.

What is Driving the Growth of Medical Tourism

The Number One factor fueling growth of medical tourism is simple:  cost savings.  While it is debatable whether the U.S. has the ‘greatest healthcare system in the world,’ there is no doubt we have the most expensive.  The following comparison table illustrates this point:

                                                              U.S. Average                        Abroad (on average)

Hip replacement                                      43,000                                   9,000-11,000  

Heart valve replacement                         160,000                                 9,000-12,000

Breast augmentation                             5,000-10,000                                 3,750

Liposuction                                           2,000-10,000                                 1,000

Dental implants                                     2,000-5,000                              500-2,000

Crowns                                                    500-3,000                               170-700

[Source:  J. Woodman, Patients Beyond Borders, 2007; and PW Marsek & F. Sharpe, Complete Idiot’s Guide to Medical Tourism, 2009]

Other factors escalating the medical tourism industry (besides economics) include:

  • Improving quality of hospitals in developing countries [the gold standard is JCI-accredited hospitals: there are currently about 140 JCI-accredited hospitals in 26 countries, outside of the U.S.]
  • Overall trend toward globalization (e.g. many U.S. multinational corporations are expanding into Asia and India)

  • Advances in technology  (the internet and Telepresence videoconferencing, as examples)

  • Media and advertising about medical tourism

Who Are the Medical Tourists

According to the Medical Tourism Association (MTA), some 500,000 Americans traveled abroad for medical/dental care in 2006.  The MTA forecasts that figure to rise into the millions by 2010.

Profiles of the Typical Medical Tourist

  • One of the many millions of uninsured Americans, who are incapacitated (e.g. need hip replacement surgery but don’t have $50,000 to pay for it)

  • A patient has insurance, but their insurer denies authorization for a procedure—perhaps due to a ‘preexisting condition’ clause

  • The individual desires a cosmetic procedure (such as breast augmentation or facelift), which would not be covered anyway, but she cannot afford Beverly Hills prices

Which Countries are Medical Tourists Traveling To

According to Josef Woodman (in Patients Beyond Borders, 2007), here are some of the top travel destinations of American medical tourists, in alphabetical order:

-Antigua & Barbados  (noted for Infertility and IVF treatments)

-Brazil  (has over 4,500 skilled cosmetic surgeons, including Dr. Ivo Pitanguy—known as the ‘Godfather of Cosmetic Surgery’)

-Costa Rica  (specialists in Cosmetic Surgery, Dentistry, and Orthopedics)

-Czech Republic  (Cosmetic Surgery and Dentistry)

-India:  India is rapidly becoming a powerhouse in the medical tourism industry: factors include a burgeoning economy, a large supply of medical specialists, very low cost, and a flourishing travel & hospitality industry  (India is strong in Cardiology & Cardiac Surgery, Orthopedics, Dentistry, and Transplants)

-Malaysia  (Infertility, Cosmetic & Orthopedic Surgery, Dentistry)

-Mexico  (Mexico has two strong points: geographical proximity, and low cost; but those are offset by two weak points: the lack of JCI-accredited hospitals, and people’s fears about drug-related violence in the border towns of Mexico)

-Singapore  (English is the primary language; and the World Health Organization recently ranked Singapore’s healthcare system as #1 in Asia)

-Thailand  (Bangkok, Thailand boasts Bumrungrad International Hospital—the first hospital to attain JCI-accreditation, and the single most popular hospital for international medical tourists.  Annually, Bumrungrad treats some 400,000 foreign patients, including visitors and expats from 190 different countries.)   Source: Complete Idiot’s Guide to Medical Tourism, 2009.

-UAE/Dubai  (Cardiovascular, Oncology, and Orthopedics)

Which Cosmetic Surgeries are the Most Popular

According to CNN Health (on, dated 8/11/10), here are the Top 10 cosmetic surgeries that patients sought out:

  1. Liposuction

  2. Breast augmentation

  3. Blepharoplasty (eyelid surgery)

  4. Rhinoplasty (nose surgery)

  5. Abdominoplasty (tummy tuck)

  6. Breast reduction surgery

  7. Breast lift

  8. Facelift

  9. Gynecomastia surgery (male breast reduction)

  10. Otoplasty (ear surgery)

Can You Get High-Quaity Medical Care Abroad

This is the million-dollar question that everyone asks.  No one will argue that you can’t get cheaper care overseas, but  ‘how can I be assured of a good outcome?’  While the medical tourism countries listed above have varying levels of service, it should be noted that those JCI-accredited hospitals that cater to foreign tourists represent the very best quality hospitals within each respective country.

Achieving JCI status is very rigorous and lengthy, and such hospitals have ongoing Quality Assurance (QA) programs to maintain their hard-earned accreditation status.  In addition, most are staffed with doctors and nurses who are conversational (if not fluent) in English.

FACT:  Many JCI hospitals (especially in Asia) boast lower morbidity and complication rates than that of major U.S. hospitals—particularly with regard to cardiovascular and orthopedic surgeries.  [Source:  Patients Beyond Borders]

Will Medical Tourism Keep Growing

By all accounts—a resounding yes.

In light of recent passage of President Obama’s Health Reform Bill, U.S. health insurers will face increased regulations and diminishing profit margins.  In response, insurance companies have started pilot projects to investigate how much savings can be actualized by incorporating medical tourism into their benefits menu. 

In addition, U.S. corporations are also eyeing medical tourism as a way to slow down the double digit increases in health premiums which seem unsustainable in terms of corporate viability.  As a testament to this trend, David Boucher—CEO of Companion Global Healthcare [CGH]  (which sells health benefits packages to corporations, which includes treatment abroad as an option) states CGH’s list of corporate customers has grown from  3 to 255 companies in the last two years.

In light of the economics, trends among insurers and corporations, as well as growing consumer awareness about medical tourism, it is a safe bet that medical tourism will continue to grow exponentially over the next decade and beyond.

Where Can I Get More Information

If you’re considering (for yourself or a loved one) surgery or a medical/dental procedure abroad, the best piece of advice is this:  do thorough research, consider ALL your options (including having surgery in the U.S.) carefully, and plan ahead.

Josef Woodman in Patients Beyond Borders [Healthy Travel Media Publications, 2007] recommends that prospective patients begin the ‘planning stage’ six months ahead.  His book is an excellent, comprehensive resource for those considering medical tourism.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Medical Tourism,  by   P. Marsek and F. Sharpe [Penguin Proup Publishing, 2009] is another great reference book to have.  Here are some other good sources of information:

-The Medical Tourism Association

-Medical Tourism website 

-Planet Hospital


If you are in need of a medical procedure or surgery (which you cannot afford here), and have done due diligence to find a top-notch surgeon at a JCI-accredited hospital (at an affordable price), and are willing/able to make an overseas trip, then medical tourism is something you should give careful consideration to.

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