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Today, more than ever, academics and tourism practitioners are in agreement that a rapidly budding expression of global commercialization of healthcare is medical tourism. Though a new and enterprising phenomenon in the tourism domain, the global medical tourism industry has expanded considerably in the recent past, with many thousands of patients from around the world traveling to destinations near and far to not only access medical care but also get immersed into a new cultural environment which is expected to occupy them during pre- and post-operative periods (Hopkins et al 185). The present paper seeks to illuminate the societal factors that drive medical tourism, and also outline its economic consequences – both positive and negative.
Understanding the Relationship between Tourism & Health
The choice of tourism destination is contingent upon many factors, some of which are more traditional while others are more conventional and specific. While the traditional tourist’s choice of a destination was hinged upon more sublime and transcendent factors, such as the desire to encounter authentic experiences and new cultural environments, an increasing number of modern-day tourists are being motivated by factors related to their health and wellbeing (Hopkins 187).
Consequently, it can be presumed that issues related to the health and wellbeing of individuals are acting as launching blocks to a whole new form of tourism in the world arena. To add more fuel to the launching pins, extant literature demonstrates that “…people have become more health-conscious; they are interested in how to lead healthy lifestyles and are also willing to spend on their health and well-being” (Voigt et al 5). =
The linkage between tourism and health, therefore, is best illuminated by how thousands of people engage in cross-border visits in the pursuit of healthcare services to maintain their health and treat their illnesses. This is the essence of medical tourism.
Societal Factors driving Medical Tourism
Extant literature demonstrates that medical tourism “…refers to cross-border health care motivated by lower cost, avoidance of long wait times, or services not available in one’s own country” (Hopkins et al 185). Consequently, it can be argued that patients engage in medical tourism to access healthcare services in destination countries at a lower cost than what is offered in their home countries, but also to avoid long waiting lists reminiscent of some developed countries, such as the United States and United Kingdom.
Indeed, it can be demonstrated that long NHS waiting lists and expensive private health care have meant that an estimated 2.65 million Britons have recently been or are planning to visit international destinations for cheaper and faster deals on such medical procedures as hip replacements, dentistry, coronary bypass, cataract removal and infertility treatment (Wall para. 1-2).
Available literature reveals that “…another factor that has fostered the demand for wellness and medical tourism is the pressure to conform to images of bodily perfection and eternal youth” (Voigt et al 5). China and India are two emerging destinations that continue to attract thousands of tourists from developed countries seeking to enhance their bodily perfection and eternal youth.
Additionally, as these authors posit, many individuals experience the urge to escape from the increasingly fast pace of everyday life and exceedingly high stress-levels that characterize the developed world, in large part due to the ongoing global financial meltdown, high levels of unemployment and financial limitations.
In these regard, the authors argue that “…the broad societal desire to live simpler and more meaningful or happy lives is an additional factor that drives tourism and wellness tourism in particular” (Voigt et al 5) Consequently, it can be argued that the market for out-of-country care, especially the inflow of patients from the wealthier developed countries to emerging and developing destination countries, is undoubtedly going to increase in the near future (Hopkins et al 186).
Evaluating the Consequences of Medical Tourism
Although a comparatively new area in the domain of tourism studies, the consequences of medical tourism – both positive and negative – have been well documented in the literature.
While proponents of this form of tourism assert that its growth and expansion in the international arena will have positive socioeconomic and development impacts on destination countries, especially low and middle-income nations, skeptics raise objections about patient safety, ethics of specific care, and expansion of private markets in the developed world at the expense of sufficiently staffed and resourced public systems (Hopkins et al 185-186). The subsequent sections evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of medical tourism.
There exist a multiplicity of socioeconomic benefits associated with medical tourism, and cost savings is undoubtedly the number-one cited benefit for why individuals travel to other destinations to obtain healthcare (Voigt et al 39; Meyer para. 7). Extant literature demonstrates that “…lower labor and living costs, the availability of inexpensive pharmaceuticals, and the low cost or absence of malpractice insurance allow many developing countries to offer some procedures at 10 per cent of the cost in the United States, inclusive of travel and accommodation” (Hopkins et al 188).
Consequently, it can be argued that the quest by patients to save on healthcare costs has catapulted this modern form of tourism to prominence, and more and more international patients are looking at medical tourism as an eye-catching solution to their health challenges (Discover Medical Tourism 2).
Quality of healthcare is another factor why medical tourism continues to proliferate. Indeed, not only are medical procedures cheaper in major medical tourism destinations due to lower labor costs and the speed with which some treatments can be completed, but they are also often of comparable or high quality than what can be offered in Western countries (Voigt et al 39).
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While statistics demonstrate that the waiting period for a hip replacement in the United Kingdom can be up to an year or even more, a patient can travel to India and have the medical procedure done almost immediately and with their safety assured since most doctors and surgeons in these medical tourism destinations have been well-trained internationally (Hopkins et al 188).
Third, it can be argued that medical tourism enables patients to access services, drugs and surgery procedures that may be unavailable or forbidden in the source country. Additionally the source country may lack the required expertise to treat various health conditions, or a particular treatment regimen may not be available because it is waiting for official approval (Voigt et al 39). The expanse of medical tourism in recent years allows patients faced with such extremities to access healthcare in destination countries.
A sizeable number of the population would like to maintain their anonymity and privacy. The need to privacy and anonymity necessitates them to seek medical care abroad as crucial medical records generated in medical tourism destinations cannot be accessed by those entities within the country of origin that could usually view such documents (Voigt et al 39).
Insurance is yet another contingent factor that informs the decision to travel abroad in the search of healthcare. Extant literature demonstrates that “…some orthopedic operations, especially knee and hip replacements, are often not covered by health insurance” (Discover Medical Tourism 2). As a direct consequence, patients who cannot afford health insurance for such complex surgical procedures have no option but to travel overseas due to the low cost in destination countries and freedom to choose where to have the procedure performed.
Indeed, the huge number of uninsured Americans creates a rapidly increasing and self-sustaining market for individuals needing affordable healthcare services in destination countries (Discover Medical Tourism 2).
The last benefit of medical tourism bearing economic connotations is the pleasure of adding some travel and adventure in the destination countries as patients go about fulfilling their health needs. A huge constituent of the medical tourism domain is the relaxing vacation/post-operative period following successful treatment, with available literature demonstrating that medical tourists have a preference towards travel and are more globally oriented (Discover Medical Tourism 2; Voigt et al 40).
A major drawback of medical tourism is that there is inadequate systematic data collection and reporting, making it extremely challenging to not only establish reliable numbers regarding patient involvement, but also know the rationale behind foreign travel.
Available literature demonstrates that lack of data stymies attempts to not only develop viable interventions or alternatives that might maintain the health and wellbeing of medical tourists, but also to generate any monitoring of who is going overseas and where they are travelling to (Johnston et al 417).
The second drawback originates from the fact that the medical tourists end up covering the costs of follow-up treatment and/or ongoing treatment irrespective of the fact such individuals may come from developed nations with publicly financed healthcare delivery systems. More important, the medical tourists may return to their source nations with severe complications from surgical procedures in destination countries.
Indeed, “…the costs of addressing these complications sometimes exceed the cost of having had the surgery done domestically” (Johnston et al 417). These scenarios have an economic orientation in that the tax-payers’ money in patients’ source countries become burdened by medical tourism as victims seek corrective procedures.
The third drawback revolves around the probability for medical tourism to facilitate the worldwide spread of infectious diseases, in large part due to the fact that it involves travelers with weakened immune systems spending considerable amount of time in health institutions abroad (Johnston et al 417).
Such a scenario, according to these authors, may augment the risk of infectious disease transmission, leading to costly and potentially fatal outcomes in source countries. The last drawback posed by medical tourism is the potential lack of legal recourse in the event of wrong diagnosis or injuries received in the course of the treatment procedure.
From the ongoing, it seems the socioeconomic benefits of medical tourism far outweigh its costs. This is good for the tourism industry, but more studies need to be instituted to not only illuminate some of the confounding factors of medical tourism that negatively affect global economies, but also provide stakeholders with the necessary tools and knowledge to tap into the domain for social and economic prosperity.
Discover Medical Tourism 2011.
Hopkins, Laura, Ronald Labonte, Vivien Runnels and Corinne Packer. “Medical Tourism Today: What is the State of Existing Knowledge?” Journal of Public Health Policy. 31.2 (2010): 185-198. Academic Search Premier. Web.
Johnston, Rory, Valorie A. Crooks, Krystyna Adams, Jeremy Snyder and Paul Kingsbury. “An Industry Perspective on Canadian Patients’ Involvement in Medical Tourism: Implications for Public Health.” BMC Public Health. 4.11 (2011): 416-423. Academic Search Premier. Web.
Meyer, Kirk. “Adventures in Medical Tourism.” The Boston Globe 28 Oct. 2012. Web. <https://www.bostonglobe.com/magazine/2012/10/27/adventures-medical-tourism/llTdoNVmbVsd1XK7BM3epJ/story.html>
Voigt, Cornelia, Jennifer Laing, Meredith Wray, Graham Brown, Gary Howat, Betty Weiler and Richard Trembath 2010, Health Tourism in Australia: Supply, Demand and Opportunities.
Wall, Emma. “Medical Tourism Costs under the Microscope.” The Telegraph Aug. 13 2010. Web. <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/personalfinance/insurance/privatemedical/7943211/Medical-tourism-costs-under-the-microscope.html>