An overview of medical tourism
According to Horowitz et al. (2008), the growth in medical travel is accelerating at a very high pace. The average annual revenue generated from the medical travel industry was estimated at $60 billion as at the end of 2008. Furthermore, the industry revenues were estimated to grow at the rate of 20% per year, meaning that the revenue that is generated from the industry as of today has surpassed the $100 billion dollar mark.
Medical tourism is caused and spearheaded by a set of complex interactions among different forces. These forces include medical, political, economic, and social forces. The factors that promote medical tourism include the availability of care in the destination, timeliness of medical care, the cost of care and the ability of people to meet the costs, different preferences for medical service, and the preference of patients for certain type of care.
Reddy, York and Brannon (2010) observed that most medical tourists flow from the United States, the Middle East, Western Europe, and Canada to the South East Asian countries like Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and India. In addition, trends in the industry point to the flow of medical tourists to South and Central American countries like Argentina, Chile, Mexico, and Costa Rica (Reddy, York & Brannon 2010).
However, it should also be noted that medical tourism is not only pictured from the cross border travel perspective, but also from the broader lenses from the intra-national perspective where people across different regions within national borders move in search for medical services (Behrmann & Smith 2010).
Stakeholders in medical tourism
The global medical tourism industry is quite broad. There are a lot of players in the industry, beginning with the consumers of the medical services, hospital doctors and other medical specialists, governments, hotels, tourism operators, the travel industry, and the communities in which medical tourism services are offered (Medical Tourism Association n.d.).
Governments are prominent stakeholders in the industry by virtue of being the main regulators of healthcare provision in any given country. Healthcare is largely regulated by the government. Therefore, all the developments that take place in the medical industry in any country happen under the watchful eye and the regulation of the given national governments.
However, the expanding scope of medical tourism and the pace at which the government allows players to come into the industry results in questioning the ability of the government to regulate the industry effectively (Behrmann & Smith 2010).
The consumers, the medical service providers, and the accommodation and hotel industry are the direct stakeholders in the industry. The accommodation and hotel industry is essential in providing services to both the patients and the people who accompany these patients to the medical destinations.
The medical service providers keep developing services and expanding their capacity to capture as many patients as possible. In addition, aspects of diversification of service provision are embraced by service providers as competition increases (Medical Tourism Association n.d.).
Consumers and motivation for service consumption in the medical tourism industry
From its very nature, it is apparent that the medical tourism industry attracts a large number of consumers due to the wide range of medical services that are developed and offered by the players in the industry.
The consumers in the industry range from critical patients who seek for specialized medical services that are not available in their countries to patients whose medical costs cannot be covered by the medical schemes due to the cost of health care in their countries, forcing them to seek for such services at affordable rates.
There is also a certain class of consumers in the industry who seek for certain services that are not primary per se, like people who seek for services in cosmetic surgery (Reddy, York & Brannon 2010).
One thing that qualifies this as a form of tourism is that it gives opportunities to the consumers of the services to go for vacation. Therefore, vacation is one of the factors that motivate most people to embrace medical tourism.
According to Behrmann and Smith (2010), consumers in the medical industry highly value anonymity and privacy. This is based on the wide range and nature of services that are sourced by the consumers in the medical tourism industry.
An example of the service that calls for privacy and anonymity is cosmetic surgery. Therefore, the fact that medical services can be sourced from far off regions from the homes of the consumers assures them the two attributes.
Abortion tourism and cosmetic and reconstructive surgery or plastic surgery are forms of services that are offered in the industry. This raises questions about the consideration of ethics in the industry. It is common nowadays to find people seeking for the services that are forbidden in their countries from other countries where such services are legal.
For example, abortion tourism, which is profoundly illegal in most countries, is highly active in a country like Canada whose laws back abortion. Therefore, most women from countries that have banned abortion across the globe fly to Canada where they can freely access the services (Behrmann & Smith 2010). Similar to abortion tourism, a lot of questions are also raised about the validity and worth of cosmetic surgery.
People spend huge sums of money to engage in this practice, yet it poses a large number of risks to the lives of people due to the nature of technology that goes into the service. This, in turn, raises concerns about the responsibility of governments in protecting the lives and promoting the health of the citizens (Sterodimas, Radwanski & Pitanguy 2011).
Impacts of medical tourism
NaRanong and NaRanong (2011) ascertain that medical tourism has greatly spurred the economic growth of these countries. Taking an example of Thailand, medical tourism boosts the generation of revenue in medical services and the accommodation and tourism revenue. This boosts economic growth. This is expounded in the figure below.
Figure 1.0: High and low growth scenario cases for medical tourism in Thailand.
Source: NaRanong & NaRanong (2011).
The other positive impact of medical tourism is that it encourages professional development and competitiveness in the industry, thereby enhancing quality in the national health care systems (Snyder et al., 2013).
The other important thing that is raised is the increase in the number of medical services. Therefore, questions are raised about the level of quality that goes into the provision of the medical services in given destinations as people seek for affordable services. Problems in this sense involve the difficulty of patients to embrace follow-up care when they have returned from foreign countries where they receive treatment (Snyder & Crooks 2012).
Accompanying the problem of follow-up is the embrace of vices due to the active and competitive environment in the industry. The environment makes it difficult to enforce a number of legal concerns and regulations. An example is the breaking of law by seeking for services that are illegal in some countries, like abortion tourism (Behrmann & Smith 2010).
According to Chakravarthy, Kumar and Deepthi (2008), there is a low level of coordination in the medical industry, with each stakeholder in the industry seeking to promote their services. Moreover, the more players are attracted into the industry, the more it becomes difficult to embrace quality services since more fake players are bound to take advantage of the high demand in the industry.
Future challenges of medical tourism
There is a higher likelihood that the capacity of the providers is likely to get overstretched in the long run as more people continue to seek for certain medical services from certain providers in certain destinations. The quality of medical services provided is watered down when the capacity is stretched.
Areas of medical care provision that attract foreign patients in certain countries are bound to be incapacitated in the event that the level of persistence of the diseases that require those services keeps rising (Reddy, York & Brannon, 2010).
The regulation of the medical industry is one of the key challenges in the industry today. As Behrmann and Smith (2010) point out, the efforts of regulating the developments in the medical tourism industry will be subjected to significant challenges. The industry attracts many players who are allowed by the government to operate to help the government to beef up the capacity of providing medical services to their citizenry.
This happens despite the fact that the healthcare industry is considered to be a primary industry. The industry is quite active and important. This makes it difficult for national governments to fully enforce the regulations and jurisdictions that go beyond national borders.
The modern globalized world continues to embrace liberalization and global connectedness. Based on this fact, national legislations that aim at embracing the regulation of medical tourism are often rendered ineffective when they are deployed across national borders (Behrmann & Smith 2010).
According to Álvarez, Chanda and Smith (2011), medical tourism has been grossly globalized. Medical tourism operates on a multilateral scale. This, in turn, raises questions about the ability of countries to offer quality and affordable health care services to their citizens.
Therefore, the future environment in the medical tourism industry will be dominated by friction between countries as questions of quality, ability, authenticity, and competition among countries gain prominence. This will affect the functioning of the industry. This is another dimension of the issue of future regulation of medical tourism.
The uncertainty in the global economy heaps pressure on the players in the industry, thereby heightening competition in the industry.
The aim of the medical service providers in the industry is to increase their clientele base. The healthiness of the competition in the industry is the determinant of positive practices in the industry; otherwise, the competition is bound to result in malpractices as providers seek to retain their significance and level of competitiveness in the industry.
The medical tourism industry is widely unregulated. This makes the industry attract a lot of players. Therefore, a multi-channel promotional environment has been established in the industry by the players who seek to promote their services and products (Reddy, York & Brannon 2010).
It is important to note that the medical tourism industry is fairly young. The growth in the industry implies heterogeneity in medical services, as well as the service providers in the industry.
The growth in specialization and the increase in the variety of services in the industry are factors that promote the complexity of the industry. While this growth promotes opportunities, it is also bound to result in duplication of services and the conflict of interest in service development, as well service provision by the players in the industry.
One of the most important things that need to be considered in enhancing the industry is the convergence of the stakeholders in the industry to promote a favourable environment that is well regulated. Both the in-country regulation and the regulation of healthcare at the global level are critical for embracing quality and competitiveness.
In addition, it is important to diversify the strategies of dealing with high numbers of medical tourists in certain destinations. One way this can be done is through the embrace of partnerships and joint-venturing in the provision of medical services by the specialized providers.
For instance, special medical service providers can establish ventures in other regions where patients from those regions can access those services quickly, instead of travelling for long distances to get medical attention. This also makes it possible for medical follow-ups to be conducted and emergency situations to be attended promptly.
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