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Medical Tourism- What Is It All About?

Medical Tourism

If the term sounds familiar, but seems like a term you don’t know much about; read the article to go through various aspects of medical tourism, what are the risks and benefits of the phenomenon, why people opt for it, the top countries for medical tourism, and how can you mitigate the risks associated with medical travel. In short, what medical tourism is all about.

Medical Tourism is quite a commonly used word these days. You would have stumbled upon the word in some or the other newspaper or magazine; either print or digital. If not, definitely some story somewhere about how some developing countries are making it big in the field of medical tourism.

Or maybe a story where the local medical association or doctors are warning against traveling abroad for medical treatment or cosmetic surgery stating that medical tourism is all laden with risks. And that you should stay "safe" by getting operated by the local doctors and you should not risk your health and life for the sake of “cheap” surgery abroad.

So what’s all this hoopla about medical tourism? And why?

What is Medical Tourism?


Medical tourism is the process of people traveling to another state or country for their medical treatment.

People opt for medical travel either by choice or by compulsion; mainly because of the following reasons:

·                     Treatment not available locally
·                     Doctors/ Hospitals are not well trained/ equipped to handle complex procedures
·                     Long waiting time in the home country
·                     Treatment too expensive in home country/state
·                     For privacy- to avoid spying eyes
·                     To recuperate peacefully away from home

Let’s delve a little deep into the above points: 

·                     Treatment not available locally

Complex procedures such as liver transplant, bone marrow transplant, cochlear implant etc. are either not done at all in a few countries or the doctors are not experienced to perform such complex procedures. Sometimes, though the doctors are trained to perform the surgery, they are not experienced enough to handle complications which may happen after the surgery.

So for people from these countries, which include Nigeria, Tanzania, Malawi, Ghana, Uganda, Yemen and few more; undergoing treatment abroad is the only available option.  

·                     Hospitals do not have the advanced technology

Many complex cardiac and brain surgeries require advanced technology which is not available in many low-income countries. For procedures such as cancer treatment for brain, prostate, colon or any other area; it is the technology and the equipment which plays a vital role in saving the life of the patient.

There are many countries where the advanced technology for cancer treatment viz. Rapid Arc, PET, Intraoperative MRI, CyberKnife etc. are not yet available.

So, those who can afford to, or are covered by insurance, choose to travel abroad for such procedures to the countries where not only such procedures are routinely done, but the cost of cancer treatment is affordable. 

·                     Long waiting time

In countries like Canada, UK, and Australia where healthcare is provided by the Govt., there are long waiting lists for non-emergency procedures such as spine surgery, joint replacements etc.

While the doctors are well trained and hospitals well equipped; the long wait is very painful and thus patients prefer to pay out of their own pockets to get the treatment done early, and medical travel is the best option for these people.

·                     Treatment too expensive in home country/state

In Western countries such as US, UK, Canada, Australia; few procedures such as Bariatric surgery, Plastic surgery, are not covered by insurance and the cost of cosmetic surgery or bariatric surgery is quite expensive to be borne completely out of pocket.

Besides, people who are not covered adequately or not covered at all by insurance find it too expensive to get the treatment done locally. It makes much economic sense for them to travel abroad for such procedures.

·                      For privacy- to avoid spying eyes

Who would like to announce to the world that I underwent a boob surgery to enhance my breasts or that I underwent a facelift to look young and fresh!

Cosmetic or aesthetic surgery is the procedure which people do not wish others to know about. And thus usually opt to get the surgery done abroad to stay away from the spying eyes of the people.

·                     To recuperate peacefully away from home

Many people wish to club their surgery with recuperation at a peaceful location. Or club the treatment with a trip to a scenic location. This means rejuvenation for mind and soul besides the body. Health or wellness travel are apt words for this phenomenon.

It is noteworthy that medical tourism is not restricted to any particular country or continent. It is a global phenomenon where people cross borders for the sake of medical treatment.

People from low-income countries travel to high or middle-income countries for complex procedures; while people from high income or developed countries travel to middle or low-income countries in search of affordable treatment.

A survey done on Medical Tourists from the US gave some interesting facts. Here’s a look at them:

medical tourism facts
Medical Tourism- Few Interesting Facts

Most Popular Procedures among Medical Tourists

The most popular procedures among medical tourists are as follows. These are not in increasing or decreasing order.

·                     Cosmetic surgery
·                     Dental Surgery
·                     Cardiac Surgery
·                     Orthopedics
·                     Cancer treatment
·                     Organ Transplant
·                     Infertility and IVF
·                     Neurosurgery
·                     Bariatric Surgery
·                     Stem Cell Treatment
·                     Health checks and investigations

Medical Tourism Statistics

Medical Tourism is a rising industry and is projected to grow up to 25% year-over-year for the next 10 years as an estimated three to four percent of the world’s population will travel internationally for healthcare, and health-related treatment. In terms of volume, experts predict that the medical travel market could soar to an astronomical USD 3 trillion by 2025.

Here's a quick look at the trend of outbound medical tourism for US and UK:

United States- Outbound Medical Tourism

UK- Outbound Medical Tourism

Medical Tourism Countries

While there are lots of countries around the world which market themselves as best destinations for medical tourism, here’s the list of Top 3 countries for Medical Tourism and why are they so.

Top 3 countries for Medical Tourism: 

·                     India
·                     Thailand
·                     Mexico 

Medical Tourism India

Taj Mahal, India

India can be aptly described as an interesting fusion of amazing architecture, colorful chaos, and now a rapidly expanding medical tourism industry.

Though started quite late in the league, India has made it to the first place in the list of top countries for medical tourism. The last decade has seen an exponential rise in the number of patients coming to India for their medical treatment. 

India medical tourism Statistics:

The market size of medical tourism India was around $ 3 billion in October 2015 and is projected to grow to $8 billion by 2020

According to CII- Grant Thorton white paper, the cost is the most important factor driving 80% of medical tourists across the world.

A quick look at the cost savings for an American across different countries is as follows:

·                     Brazil: 20-30%
·                     Costa Rica: 45-65%
·                     Malaysia: 65-80%
·                     Mexico: 40-65%
·                     Singapore: 25-40%
·                     South Korea: 30-45%
·                     Taiwan: 40-55%
·                     Thailand: 50-75%
·                     Turkey: 50-65%
·                     India: 65-90%

(This is based on a variety of procedures using average cost in a country as the benchmark)

No wonder India occupies the top spot given that it offers maximum cost savings to the medical travelers.

Why Medical Tourism to India is so popular?

There are various reasons why India is the most popular medical tourism destination in the world. Here's the list of few of them:

  • Low cost of Medical Treatment

A quick comparison of the cost of various procedures in India with that of the Western countries. Look at the table carefully and it more than explains why India is at the top of the curve.

  • Highly qualified and renowned doctors

Indian surgeons and doctors hold an enviable reputation all over the world for their skills and proficiency in the medical field. If you are staying in the West, there are good chances that you would get operated by an Indian surgeon. Why not then get operated by an Indian surgeon in India where the cost is much less!

  • JCI accredited healthcare facilities

India boasts of 37 JCI accredited healthcare facilities in India; the second highest in the world after Thailand. The JCI accreditation gives the medical tourists confidence about the quality of care and infrastructure at the hospital.

  • No waiting time

There is no waiting time for medical treatment at corporate and privately run hospitals in India. In fact, the hospitals that focus on medical tourists, go the extra mile to please them. Few of the privileges that these hospitals offer to the medical tourists are Green channel, multi-cuisine restaurants, travel desk, international lounges etc. 

  • No language barrier

English being the official language of the country makes communication easier between the patient and the doctor. All doctors, nurses and the hospital staff at big hospitals in India are fluent in communicating in English. For Arabic, Russian and other languages, there are full-time interpreters to make the communication easy.

  • Ease of Visa

The Govt. of India has started issuing E-medical visa or Medical visa on arrival; which is much faster and easier to obtain. All you need to do is fill an online application form. You shall get the visa approval through e-mail usually within four days after applying for it. You shall get the visa when you arrive at the pre-decided airport in India. 

  • India’s popularity as the tourism destination

There is no country as unique as India when it comes to culture, colors, diversity, and cuisine. India is the must-visit destination in the world if you wish to experience the most vibrant place on the earth. Clubbing it with dental treatment or cosmetic surgery makes the trip a great economical idea as well!

  • Alternative systems of medicine like yoga, naturopathy not available anywhere else

West is fast realizing the value of mental and spiritual wellbeing and getting close to nature for spiritual upliftment. India is the only country to have given the pristine physical and mental healing powers to the world in the form of Yoga, Naturopathy, and Ayurveda. There is no place better in the world than India to experience the best of these sciences.



Located in Southeast Asia, Thailand is the 50th largest country in the world and the 12th largest in Asia. Thailand is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. The country is very popular for its beaches, massages and sex tourism; and has now secured its position as the second most popular medical tourism destination in the world.

The country has the highest number of JCI accredited hospitals in the world outside the United States and medical tourism contributes about $ 5 billion per year to its GDP.  Experts estimate the contribution of medical tourism to Thailand’s GDP is around 0.7%, while that of while tourism to be around 10%. 



Mexico, officially known as the United Mexican States is a federal republic located in the South of North America and is the 12th most populous country in the world. Inhabited by several ethnic groups, Mexico is the largest Spanish speaking country in the world.

Mexico attracts a lot of patients from the United States because of its close proximity to the US. The most popular treatments sought by Americans in Mexico are Dentistry, Cosmetic surgery, Fertility and Bariatric Surgery.

About a million medical tourists per year, mostly from the US and Canada visit Mexico contributing about $ 4.8 billion to its GDP per year. 

Risks of Medical Tourism                              

The cliché that “Every side has two coins” is apt even in the case of medical tourism. 

Of course, medical tourism has its own share of risks. Here's a quick list of few most important of them: 

  • Infection- One of the major concerns about traveling to other country is the risk of infection. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria may be more common outside the United States and thus difficult to treat
  • Poor quality of medication
  • Communication may be a problem if you choose to travel to the non-English speaking country
  • Flying immediately after surgery can increase the risk of blood clots
  • Follow up care may be difficult
  • Credentials of the doctor/ hospital can be of concern

What Can You do to mitigate the risks associated with Medical Tourism?

Any medical procedure or surgery undertaken anywhere in the world carries some risk. And if you are seeking treatment abroad, the risks may go up if you are not careful. 

However, you can definitely make medical tourism safe and cost-effective if you take care of the following points:

  • Always choose an accredited hospital
  • Ask for the infection control records at the hospital
  • Check your surgeon’s profile and credentials
  • Make sure he/ she is a board-certified surgeon with no track record of malpractice against him/her
  • Talk to the surgeon before you commit to the surgery
  • Make sure you and surgeon can communicate in the same language
  • Get references of the past patients he/she has operated upon.
  • Choose to travel with a reliable medical tourism company. A professional medical tourism company would not only be your guide and friend in a foreign country but would help you with information, arrangements and follow up care after you are back to your country. 

Medical Tourism- Risks vs Benefits

While there are a few sad stories about medical travel; there are voluminous tales of successful surgeries where patients’ lives were saved when they sought treatment abroad. In many cases, the quality of life improved to a great extent when the patients were living a life of pain and disability because of long waiting time for the treatment in the home country.

A treatment or a surgery which they couldn’t afford locally or had been on long waiting lists or a surgery which was not available in their country at all.

However, be careful and don’t decide solely on the basis of cost. Saving money is important but not at the cost of your health or life!