$60bn Medical Tourism Industry Is Thriving; But Watch Out For Exchange Rate Fluctuations

Have you ever considered getting your medical treatment abroad? This increasingly popular industry caters for a variety of treatments, from dentistry, to fertility treatment, to cosmetic surgery, to orthopaedics, and is driven by a surprising disparity in the costs of the same treatments in different parts of the world, and the quicker availability of treatments in some countries as opposed to others.

According to a recent article in The Economist, the medical tourism industry is worth some $61bn per annum, although a more conservative estimate, from Orbis research, claims the industry was worth approximately $17bn in 2016, but is growing at a CAGR of 19% and is expected to be worth nearly $47bn by 2021.

Hotspots apparently include Croatia, where waiting lists are low and the costs of a hip or knee replacement more than make up for the costs and inconvenience of the travel involved, Barbados, where IVF fertility treatment is popular, South Korea, Brazil, and South Africa, popular destinations for fans of cosmetic surgery, and Hungary, Mexico and Costa Rica, where specialist dentistry services can be found at short notice.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that many medical tourism hotspots are located in places which tend to be popular holiday destinations in their own right. It makes it easier to bear the stress of the operation, and makes privacy easier to maintain. Those considering a change of sex may discover that the best and cheapest option is to head to Thailand, according to the Economists’ world map of medical tourism.

Dubai is another country looking to attract medical tourists, and not just from neighbouring Middle-Eastern countries. The Dubai-Africa Partnership for Better Health Roadshow, in partnership with Dubai Emirates, recently held an exhibition in Nigeria, where prospective customers could meet healthcare professionals affiliated with the Dubai Health Authority, face-to-face, to discuss their requirements.

Reports also suggest that the number of tourists visiting Turkey to seek medical treatments rose from 75,000 in 2008, to an expected 850,000 in 2018. This astonishing growth is perhaps explained by the fact that some forms of surgery, which can be prohibitively expensive in the West, cost as much as 90% less in Turkey. One source quoted in Turkey’s Daily News estimated that “the cost of angiography is $47,000 in the U.S., $13,000 in Singapore, $11,000 in India and $10,000 in Thailand, while $5,000 in Turkey.”

Although Turkey’s ex-health minister believes the country could attract more than 2m people for overseas medical treatment and achieve an industry size of $20bn by 2023, the country’s wildly fluctuating exchange rate could give prospective health tourists pause for thought. The same problem also threatens the market for cosmetic surgery in South Africa, where it is similarly hard to foresee how much the rand will be worth from one month to the next.

Health insurance, and the quality of treatment, are also major hurdles. Patients whose surgery goes wrong have little recourse to complain and must choose their surgery or surgeon mostly on reputation and word of mouth alone – hardly ideal, if the surgery is of a serious nature. On the other hand, it’s possible that certain regions will establish a stellar reputation in their chosen field, and attract world-leading surgeons and medical practitioners to their shores.

The idea of medical tourism is not an entirely new one – the Victorians, for example, were known to travel to the French Riviera, or the Alps region in pursuit of the clean, invigorating air and temperate climate. According to PWC, some 14m people took the plunge and paid for treatment abroad in 2016, and increasingly, startup businesses are springing up and trying to take advantage of the exponentially growing market, offering peer reviews, better organisation and more dedicated pastoral care services.

Besides wellness, India is another emerging hub for overseas treatment, for orthopaedics and cardiology, thanks to the strength of its medical education. Those who can find the time, want to save a significant sum, and can find a location with an outstanding reputation, and a steady exchange rate, may find that medical tourism is, figuratively speaking, right up their street.

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