International medical tourism has become a US$60 billion industry which is growing at the galloping pace of 20% a year. Patients in Europe and North America seeking bargains or speedier treatment are travelling to countries like India, Brazil and Thailand for medicine which is as good or better than what they could afford at home. India will treat half a million overseas patients this year, for instance.
The trend has increased since the Asian currency crisis between 1997 and 2001, and 9/11, because Asians and Arabs were effectively unable to travel to the US for treatment. Savvy medical administrators sensed an opportunity and stepped into the gap. In some instances, the quality of medicine is outstanding.
According to Ruben Toral, a marketing manager for a Bangkok-based hospital, the typical medical tourist is someone over 50 who wants elective surgery or a medical procedure on a budget. His hospital pays its doctors lower wages and runs a strictly cash business.
At a seminar on international medical tourism in Las Vegas earlier this month, however, some concerns about the trend emerged. In many of these countries medical liability is not well developed. Although there is little hard information, some procedures have required reparative surgery back home. A recent survey of 68 Australian plastic surgeons uncovered 100 instances of botched procedures after women took “cosmetic surgery holidays” in Thailand and Malaysia.
What does the future hold? Perhaps the globalisation of medicine, as baby boomers go abroad for their operations. an expert who predicts that insurance companies will develop products specifically for the medical tourism market and developing countries will build hospitals to capitalise on their relatively low labour costs.
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