Time was when the last place a traveler wanted to be while on the road was in a hospital – much less making a trip especially to undergo medical treatments.  Then a minor miracle occurred: travelers began to discover that procedures in foreign lands could be safe, effective and best of all, less costly.

What started as secretive ‘medi-cations,’ where a few days away from the office might mean a little nip ‘n’ tuck, has turned into a well-respected, and multi-billion dollar international industry. In fact, the spread of the so-called medical tourism market has underscored the global scope of medicine, a phenomenon that’s a direct outgrowth of a low-cost world-wide travel industry.

New market research predicts that the world medical tourism market will reach $143.8 billion by 2022, growing at an impressive annual rate of 15.7 from 2015 to 2022. There are two main drivers behind this booming market, according to the study entitled World Medical Tourism Market - Opportunities and Forecasts, 2014 - 2022, published by Allied Market Research.  

The first is the supply side of the equation; affordable, accessible quality healthcare services are available in a surprising number of major centers around the world. The second factor is an unfortunate rise in demand; increasing incidence of cancer and other serious ailments will drive the patients to seek superior healthcare they can afford wherever they can find it.

And finding they are, and in some unexpected places. For example, it probably comes as no shock that North America accounted for about one-third of the global medical tourism in 2015.  However it may be surprising to learn that Mexico is the market leader in North America followed by the US; in fact, according to an analysis by Transparency Market Research, Mexico ranks as the top medical tourism destination in the world, hosting the largest number of medical tourists, especially patients from North and Latin America.

Mexico’s popularity is due to the availability of affordable medical care for several diseases, most notably cancer, which continues to be the highest revenue-generating segment in the medical tourism market. Treatments can be expensive and prolonged, hence patients tend to seek destinations that offer affordable costs, but that are still relatively close to home.

Eastern Stars

Another third of medical tourism dollars are spend in Asia-Pacific, which is the fastest growing region, owing to the increasing treatment success rates coupled with the affordable price range. Within the Asia-Pacific medical tourism market, Singapore, Korea, India, Thailand and Malaysia are among the Asian countries which are investing most in facilities, treatment options and personnel.

Thailand is one country that came early to medical tourism. While today it’s world famous for cosmetic surgery, it has also become one of the top destinations for eye and dental surgery. The list of Thailand’s medical tourist arrivals is topped by patients from Japan, followed by those from Asia and the Middle East with the US and South Asia coming in fourth and fifth. Thailand is also seeing an uptick in medical tourists from Great Britain, Taiwan and China, Australia, France and Germany, among others.

Singapore, which has been long-established as medical destination, specializes in organ transplants, cancer treatment, cardiac surgery and fertility treatment. And Malaysia is making its mark in cosmetic surgery and comprehensive health checkups, as is Korea, which also specializes in stem cell treatment and spine surgery.

Throughout the Asia-Pacific region, reasonably-priced medical procedures are available on request and often only a short plane ride away. Travelers can also use the cost savings – up to 80 percent compared with Western facilities – to include some time for rest and recuperation, without sacrificing on service or quality.

Increasingly India is taking the lead in developing sophisticated medical facilities, drawing patients from surrounding countries with less advanced healthcare systems, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and central Asia.  As a consequence, the country has seen growth in medical tourism revenues to $3.9 billion, according to a 2014 report from Deloitte.

The Asian economic crisis of the 1990s decreased national health funding in India, and created demand for private medical facilities, encouraging the rise of the corporate hospital. Today, corporations like Fortis Healthcare, Narayana Health and The Apollo Group are multi-billion dollar organizations with private hospital chains around the region.

Fortis, for example, boasts 54 health care facilities (including projects under development) throughout India, as well as in Dubai, Mauritius and Sri Lanka with over 10,000 potential beds, over 260 diagnostic centers and more than 17,000 employees.

Meanwhile elsewhere in the world, a rising number of countries are striving to become major exporters of medical services. Some of the key countries that have emerged as prominent players in the medical tourism field may be even more surprising: the list includes Costa Rica, Brazil, Turkey, Poland, Dubai, Israel, and – two rising players to keep an eye on in coming years – Kenya and Rwanda.

According to a new analysis from Frost & Sullivan, the latter two may see substantial investments in their healthcare systems in coming years due to a diverse set of forces, including favorable economic factors, a supportive regulatory environment and a high disease burden. Demand for quality healthcare services from a rising middle class in both Kenya and Rwanda, together with heightened awareness of the need for better medical options will drive up per capita expenditure in that sector.

Rx for the Right Choice

Not surprising, the increase in the reach of Internet has played a huge role in the growth of medical tourism worldwide.  Got a diagnosis? Need surgery? Want less costly, equally effective treatments?  The answers to these and countless other medical questions are available through myriad resources online.  

And therein lies the rub. More than shopping for any other product or service, selecting a healthcare provider from the Internet requires a larger than usual dose of caveat emptor – buyer beware.

The rapid expansion of the market has given rise to various organizations that provide information about medical tourism such as the Medical Tourism Association and the Europe Medical Tourism Alliance. In addition, major market players have established overseas promotional offices, and national tourism departments have become acutely aware of the sheer volume of medical tourist dollars, leading them to tout their countries as center of excellence in specific healthcare services.

All this information is great to have, but often muddies rather than clarifies the waters. However it’s important to do your due diligence; look for trustworthy accreditation, evaluate the medical facilities’ personnel, equipment and technology, pay attention to patient satisfaction reviews and – especially in places where there may be a language barrier – consider patient communication.

Although medical tourism can provide excellent medical care at comparatively cheap prices, costs in some regions are rising. At the same time new procedures are constantly being introduced, which may mean better outcomes here at home, regardless of costs. Ultimately, it’s about making an informed choice: Where in the world should you get your medical treatment?