The global medical tourism market could grow to being worth more than $180 billion in the coming three years. A new study suggests that developing healthcare markets could seize on the trend to pick up lucrative patients from wealthy countries.
The term ‘medical tourism’ has for some time been synonymous with reactionary myths regarding immigration. The theory went that swathes of internationals were flooding the health systems of countries like the UK or US in a bid to access healthcare unavailable in their home nations, free of charge.
Claims that this was costing health systems arbitrary-millions per year were largely unfounded. However, as the under-resourced and neglected infrastructure of the US and UK health systems continue to buckle under lingering pressures from the pandemic, many residents there are, ironically enough, turning to health tourism.
With waiting lists stretching out and preventing people receiving important treatment, and private systems becoming unaffordable to many users, millions of US residents alone participate in medical tourism each year – travelling to neighbouring Mexico or Canada most commonly.
A new report from Glasgow Research & Consulting suggests that this growing demand could present a huge opportunity to healthcare institutions and clinics around the world in years to come. According to the strategic consulting firm, the global medical tourism market’s total value could balloon by 9.7% CAGR by 2025 – with some 44 million people moving across borders for healthcare per year.
The medical tourism market was valued at $105 billion in 2019. This understandably fell in 2020, when international Covid-19 lockdowns reduced the amount of travel possible throughout the year. But as restrictions eased, and health systems in many countries struggled to recover, it became apparent that there was an increasing appetite to move.
The experts anticipate that by 2023, 27 million people will want to travel for medical treatment, making the market worth around $120 billion. By 2025, this is forecast to boom to $182 billion.
While health tourism is often talked about in the news as being dominated by elective treatments such as cosmetic surgery (hair-plugs or veneers from Turkey, etc) it increasingly includes critical care treatment such as oncology, with desperation among patients rising in a number of developed markets.
In 2021, oncology, cardiovascular and neurology treatment accounted for the major part of medical tourism spending in 2021. While the average number of patients are less in these treatment, the higher cost of treatment in these specialties (the average cost per patient for oncology was $16,581, cardiovascular $17,597, neurology $13,559) shows that people’s desire for vital treatments is rife with opportunities.
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The fall of air travel cost has helped the rise in medical travel, as patients are more able to manage both the fare for a long-distance journey, and the overall cost of treatment abroad. For example, while cardiovascular treatment’s average cost seems high at $17,597, a bypass surgery in the US costs as much as $123,000.
Even with a return air fare, that is likely a far cheaper treatment when taken in Asia. As such, operators across the continent and the Middle East could position themselves to take advantage of the situation more easily than ever before.
Medical tourism does come with risks, however. Many health destinations feature hospitals which may be poorly equipped to handle complications from surgeries. There may also be increased danger for the patient of coming into contact with infectious diseases which are well controlled in their own health system – such as hepatitis C or HIV – or antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Further, tourist patients may also require continuity of care – which their status as a tourist will not make accessible to them for an extended period of time.
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