When Travel Meets Treatment: The Phenomenon of Medical Tourism

Oct 31, 2023 | Aging Successfully, Patient Advocacy, Patient Safety

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Tropical destination view from airplane windo2Let’s delve into adventure. Today we will examine seeking medical care at a destination. I’m talking about Medical Tourism. Have you heard of it?

Medical tourism has emerged as a significant global industry where individuals travel across international borders to seek medical treatment, often for reasons such as cost savings, access to specialized treatments, or shorter wait times. This phenomenon has gained momentum and made it easier for patients to access medical services in different parts of the world.

Today I am going to talk about this exploding industry and why it is seeing such growth. Why folks are choosing it, and where they are going. Then you know we must have a look at who is going and for what.

Medical Tourism is a global phenomenon, and its value means a great deal to patients and a monetary shot in the arm to many of the countries that are destinations. It’s big money. Think 100 billion globally.

According to Patients Beyond Borders, the most sought-after medical procedures in medical tourism include cosmetic surgery, dental treatments, orthopedic surgeries, and cardiac procedures. People also pursue treatment for

  • Cancer (often experimental or last resort)
  • Reproductive  and fertility challenges
  • Weight loss or bariatric procedures
  • Scans, tests, health screenings, second opinions

This next part is so interesting.

Mexico and Costa Rica are popular destinations for U.S. travelers seeking dental care, cosmetic surgery, and discounted prescription medications. 

Thousands of people cross the U.S.-Mexico border annually for affordable dental procedures. Los Algodones in Mexico — known as “Molar City” or the “Dental Capital of the World” — is a 20-minute drive from Yuma, Arizona, and a 2-hour drive from San Diego. There are hundreds of dentists who offer fillings, crowns, and other dental services for prices far lower than in the U.S.

People from the U.S. report going to Thailand, India, and South Korea for more complex procedures such as orthopedics, cardiovascular, cancer, and fertility treatments.

The Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Mexico are known for their prolific churn of U.S. residents who visit for Brazilian butt lifts, or BBLs, which are usually buttock enhancement surgeries.

Why Patients Seek Treatment In Other Countries

Here are some of the reasons a patient may seek treatment and procedures outside of the US:

  • If you have insurance, you could pay less than your deductible and copay, even when factoring in the added expenses for airfare or fuel and lodging.
  • If you are having an elective procedure, very often, you may pay less than in the U.S., even including travel costs.
  • Dental procedures in the U.S. can be especially expensive. There are options across the U.S.-Mexico border that offer similar services at a fraction of the cost.
  • You may be able to combine your medical care with a vacation.
  • Some seek care from a clinician who shares the traveler’s culture and language.
  • Many patients schedule to obtain shorter wait times for a procedure.
  • Medical Tourism may be a good option to get a procedure or therapy that is not available or approved in the United States, or there may be a lack of local expertise.
  • Some are pursuing advanced technology: Approximately 30% of medical tourists travel to access cutting-edge medical technology and treatments.
  • Around 10% of medical tourists seek alternative therapies and holistic treatments available in certain medical tourism destinations.
  • Most patients seem to be after the cost savings angle. Medical tourism can save patients up to 70% on the cost of care compared to the United States.
  • A close second to cost savings may be the idea of combining treatment with vacation. Approximately 40% of medical tourists view medical travel as an opportunity to combine treatment with leisure and vacation.

Let’s look now at Medical Tourism as the industry it is.


The Global and Economic Impact of Medical Tourism

According to Market.us Media, “the medical tourism industry is booming, with annual growth estimated at 15-25%. Patients are drawn to popular destinations like Thailand, Mexico, India, Turkey, Malaysia, Costa Rica, and Singapore due to substantial cost savings of 40-80%. Remarkably, over 90% of medical tourists express high satisfaction with their care. This thriving industry contributes over $100 billion annually to the global economy”.

Popular medical tourism destinations often witness an increase of up to 25% in healthcare-related revenue. In certain regions, employment opportunities in medical tourism-related sectors can grow by 15%, in certain cases accounting for up to 10% of a country’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product, the value of goods and services).

Wow. With all this, you may be curious: Who is seeking medical tourism?


Who Are the Medical Tourists?

  • Patient Origin: The majority of medical tourists come from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Western Europe.
  • Age Distribution: The majority of medical tourists fall within the age range of 40 to 60 years old, comprising around 45% of all medical tourists.
  • Gender Breakdown: Women constitute a higher percentage of medical tourists, making up approximately 60% of the total medical tourism population.
  • Younger Patients: An emerging trend shows a rise in medical tourists aged 18 to 30, accounting for about 15% of the total medical tourism demographic.
  • Elderly Medical Travelers: Patients aged 60 and above makeup about 25% of medical tourists seeking specialized treatments such as joint replacements and cardiac surgeries.
  • Gender Preference in Procedures: Women often dominate cosmetic procedures, constituting about 80% of patients, while men tend to seek treatments for cardiology and orthopedics.

That’s the who, how about the “where”?


Top Medical Tourism Destinations

Medical tourists from the U.S. are most likely to go to South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. The top destinations for U.S. travelers are Mexico and Canada. Worldwide,  Asia is considered a major medical tourism destination for travelers.

According to Patients Beyond Borders, the top destination countries for medical tourism are:

  • Costa Rica
  • India
  • Malaysia
  • Mexico
  • Singapore
  • South Korea
  • Taiwan
  • Thailand
  • Turkey
  • United States

The U.S. remains a highly desirable destination for medical tourism for fertility treatments and stem cell therapy. Some large hospitals offer international patient programs and medical travel services.

Let’s take a quick look at one top medical tourism destination and what it means for that country in a global market. Let’s zero in for a moment on India’s medical tourism.

According to Patients Without Borders

  • The Indian medical tourism market is estimated to be worth $6 billion.
  • India receives around 500,000 medical tourists annually, making it a prominent destination.
  • Cardiac surgery and orthopedic procedures are some of the most sought-after treatments by medical tourists due to India’s expertise.
  • Medical tourists in India can experience savings of 65-90% on medical expenses compared to Western countries.
  • The country offers over 20,000 registered medical tourists’ beds across various hospitals, ensuring quality care. 
  • The Indian government has taken steps to simplify the medical visa process, enhancing the ease of access for international patients.

So far, we have covered who is going, why, and where; aren’t you curious as to what exactly patients are traveling for, what procedures are hot, in the highest demand?


Top Procedures Sought In Medical Tourism

Dental implants are the most popular medical tourism procedure.  $5,000 in the US, but in Mexico, the same procedure can cost $739 (a difference of 85%). It’s even less in Costa Rica ($541) or Spain ($549). (ooo, Spain).

Other dental procedures commonly sought by medical tourists are veneers, crowns, and implants.

In the plastic surgery arena, patients are going for liposuction, tummy tucks, breast implants, facelifts, and rhinoplasty (nose jobs).

Patients seek Lasik surgery, not covered by insurance usually, and hair transplants: Turkey is a particularly popular destination for hair restoration, with about 60,000 medical tourists arriving each year for a new head of hair. Istanbul, Turkey’s capital, is home to about 350 hair restoration clinics, which charge less than $2,000 for the procedure.


As Your Patient Advocate Sees It

Join me now in putting on your advocacy hat. Who are the providers in this industry? Who arranges for it all, the care and coordination? You may wonder where a patient advocate might fit into all of this. As one, I am watching all this unfold.

The medical travel journey is complex and could be overwhelming for a medical tourist visiting a country for the first time. Patient advocates could play an integral role in ensuring a seamless medical travel continuum by guiding medical tourists through the care journey and ensuring they receive the best care they can get. 

Personally, I know of only a couple of patient advocates who assist with medical tourism, and certainly, more will make this their niche as the industry grows. Still, the care and coordination piece should also hold a ‘Buyer Beware’ for anyone considering medical tourism. There will be a lot of “Kinda Advocates” online, easy to find because of their Google Ads. Providers will peddle their wares, the good and not-so-good, and refer to themselves as “advocates.” Buyer Beware. 

I say ‘Buyer Beware’ because the consumer must always “Follow the Money” to find the allegiance. Who is getting paid, and to whom does their allegiance belong? 

To illustrate, let’s say your online search has rendered a promising, seemingly terrific concierge service that handles all the details and turnkey services from soup to nuts. I would ask: who is paying them, where is their money coming from? Are their deals and endorsements any contracts? 

Maybe you’ve found an organization offering to “negotiate your costs”, perhaps taking a percentage? Right or wrong, or no matter what you decide to do. you owe it to yourself to at least understand how it all works. Then make your best decisions.

Hit the pause button for a moment on the shiny, lower-cost solution, possible vacation, and consider these two tried-and-true approaches. Let’s bring it back home to your reality, your path.

    1. Consult with your provider or your doctor. That person called your Primary Care Provider, the one that is supposed to be your Medical Home.
    2. Hire a patient advocate. They can assist with the due diligence, help with the research and vetting, and be a sounding board or a thought provoker (we are pretty good at some “devil’s advocacy” when needed, attempting to shoot a hole in what “seems too good to be true” (because we all know the hindsight associated with that phrase (If it seems too good to be true it usually is).

Enter Risk

There is risk involved in medical tourism, as with any medical procedure.  What about recovery? At the destination or in flight (can you fly safely afterward?) and during follow-up care when you’ve returned to the US. 

Are you starting to peel this onion with me? There is more to realize. As with any medical treatment, there is a possibility something will go wrong.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (our CDC can be a great resource), there are specific risks if you receive healthcare outside the U.S. See if any of these considerations get your attention.

  • Infectious disease: You may have a higher likelihood of infections to wounds, your bloodstream, or from an organ or tissue transplant. You also could be at higher risk for acquiring hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV — and even COVID.
  • Antibiotic resistance: the risk of antibiotic resistance is higher in some countries. There is also the risk of bringing a multidrug-resistant infection back home that can spread on the community level.
  • Quality of care: The licensing, credentialing, and accreditation in some countries may be less rigorous than in the U.S. Equipment, and devices may not have the same regulatory or sterilization requirements. Medications could be counterfeit or ineffective.
  • Communication challenges: You might not speak the same language as the medical staff, and translation may be unavailable or inadequate. This can lead to misunderstandings, to say the least. If you don’t speak the local language, it might be difficult to explain any feelings of discomfort or apprehension as they come up.
  • Traveling: Did you know that long plane rides or car rides can increase your risk of blood clots? If you have had chest or abdominal surgery, you should not travel by air for at least 10 days because of the associated changes in atmospheric pressure. If you have cosmetic procedures on your face, eyelids, or nose — or if you have had laser treatments — you should wait 7 to 10 days before taking a flight. Traveling on planes and through airports also may expose you to viruses, including COVID.
  • Continuity of care: You may need follow-up care when you return home, whether you have complications or not. How are those medical records going to convey? And are we talking apples to apples here as far as care and treatment between countries is concerned?

This patient advocate will also bring it back to a patient’s rights. 

  • Your personal health information: who has access to your records? How will records be protected?
  • Do you have the right to refuse treatment (in that country)? How much say will you have all along?

Ensuring safety

It’s important to check with your primary care doctor and other providers before you travel for medical treatment. Ask questions and prepare carefully because there are additional risks involved in receiving healthcare abroad. Check the credentials of your expected providers in the other country. Research the medical facility, which may not have the same standards as healthcare institutions in the U.S.

You can find out a lot from our CDC (they have an entire section on medical tourism), from vaccination websites (yes, you may need inoculations in advance of travel to foreign countries), and from the International Joint Commission on Health

Pro Tip: To be sure, you can find attractive websites from the travel destinations themselves but use those to develop your questions, not so much to rely upon the answers. 

I am only suggesting that you gain or perform some due diligence to have your eyes wide open about it all. To me, it is interesting to observe the industry and its growth. What patient advocate doesn’t like to know about options for care and treatment?

Have you noticed we’ve not even covered the posh part of travel and tourist destinations? Where you might lie in the lap of luxury while you heal? I am not here today to dangle pristine views, images of lapping aqua waters, or world-class cuisine as part of your recovery, but I suppose it is there, provided you remain long enough. 

Even that suggests another question for your consideration: where do you really want to spend your recovery time, in the known or the unknown? That is for you to decide.

As medical tourism evolves,  I believe that travelers should carefully evaluate their decision with their PCP (Primary Care Physician) here. Patients should look, or have someone look, at quality, safety, and regulatory standards of medical facilities they plan on visiting in their chosen destinations. (Did you get that plug for patient advocacy services?  For informed decision-making?).  It is something everyone deserves and that we, as patient advocates, can help ensure.

Medical tourism: it’s shiny and new, so it might be an option for you. My goal is always to provoke thought, have folks think differently, and look beyond the obvious. To a patient advocate, the obvious is often shiny and too good to be true, and I am looking out for you.

Keeping abreast of medical trends that may impact you or someone you love. That’s my jam for you.

I hope something I’ve said today helps you to move more comfortably forward in life – or gives you something fun to talk about at your next social gathering. Who’s up for a BBL?


As a Patient Advocate, I am here to guide and provide clear information so you can make the best healthcare decision for you or someone you love. I offer a Complimentary Consultation toward engagement. Set yours today!