Medical Tourism: Global Competition in Health Care

Health | International | Policy Reports

No. 304
Thursday, November 01, 2007
by Devon M. Herrick

The Emerging Market for Medical Tourism

“Medical tourists are seeking high quality medical care at affordable prices.”

Medical tourism is growing and diversifying.  Estimates vary, but McKinsey & Company and the Confederation of Indian Industry put gross medical tourism revenues at more than $40 billion worldwide in 2004. Others estimate the worldwide revenue at about $60 billion in 2006.McKinsey & Company projects the total will rise to $100 billion by 2012. [See Figure I.]


Worldwide Medical Tourism Industry

Internationally-known hospitals, such as Bumrungrad in Thailand and Apollo in India, report revenue growth of about 20 percent to 25 percent annually. McKinsey & Company estimates that Indian medical tourism alone will grow to $2.3 billion by 2012. Singapore hopes to treat 1 million foreign patients that year.

Reports on the number of patients traveling abroad for health care over the past few years are scattered, but all tell the same story.  In 2005:

  • Approximately 250,000 foreign patients sought care in Singapore, and 500,000 traveled to India for medical care.
  • Thailand treated as many as 1 million foreign patients.

The foreign patients treated in these countries included some of the 500,000 Americans who traveled abroad for medical treatment that year.

Residents of countries with national health insurance, including Canada and the United Kingdom, often travel to other countries, including the United States, because they lack timely access to elective procedures due to rationing.  In Canada, physicians cannot privately treat their fellow Canadians if those treatments are covered by the government health plan (Medicare).  Also, national health systems sometimes deny treatment to particular patients (for example, because of age or physical condition), and some treatments may not be available to any patients (for example, because of cost).

However, for most medical tourists, including those from the United States, the reason for travel is financial.  The effect of financial incentives on Americans' willingness to travel for medical care is shown by a recent nationwide survey.

  • Almost no one would travel a great distance to save $200 or less.
  • Fewer than 10 percent would travel to save $500 to $1,000.
  • About one-quarter of uninsured people, but only 10 percent of those with health insurance, would travel abroad for care if the savings amounted to $1,000 to $2,400.
  • For savings exceeding $10,000 about 38 percent of the uninsured and one-quarter of those with insurance would travel abroad for care.

“Medical tourists include residents of countries with national health insurance, where heath care is rationed.”

Some American medical tourists are seeking lower prices for treatments not covered by insurance (such as cosmetic surgery and weight loss surgery).  Uninsured patients paying the cost out of their own pocket travel because American hospitals often charge cash-paying, uninsured individuals inflated “list” prices, which can be much higher than government or private insurers have to pay. Also, a small but growing number of insurers are creating health plans that encourage enrollees to shop for better prices among approved vendors in other countries and allow them to share in the savings.  There are also potential savings for insured patients who bear some of the cost through copayments and deductibles.  For example, if a procedure cost $4,000 less in another country, a patient required to pay 20 percent of the cost (through a copayment) would save $800 out of pocket.

Where Do Patients Seek Treatment?  Most American medical tourists seek treatment in Mexico and other Latin American countries.  Clinics in Brazil and Argentina have offered low-cost cosmetic surgery for years. India and Thailand are now promoting their high-tech facilities for more serious procedures, including hip and knee replacements and cardiac surgery. Other destinations include Singapore, Belgium and South Africa. Many Northern and Western Europeans travel to Central and Eastern Europe for low-cost medical and dental services. [See the sidebar, “Medical Tourism Destinations.”]

Cross-Border Medical Tourism.   It may be impractical for sick Americans to travel to faraway places like India and Thailand for major surgery.  But many types of medical services are available nearby — in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.

“Most American medical tourists seek treatment in Mexico and other Latin American countries.”

Mexico .   Mexican physicians have a thriving business treating American (and Canadian) retirees searching for of low-cost drugs, dental care and physician services. Prices in Mexico are about 40 percent lower than in the United States.  Cash-paying, uninsured Americans can find better deals on procedures in Mexico, including price quotes and package prices, which most American hospitals do not offer. 

Indeed, some Arizona retirement communities have regular bus tours to take residents across the Mexican border for prescription drugs and dental care. Some health plans in Southern California offer lower premiums and copayments to patients who use network providers across the border in Tijuana. Facilities are being built in Mexican border towns to take advantage of these plans. 

Dallas-based International Hospital Corp. operates four Mexican hospitals, three close to the U.S. border and one near Mexico City (it has other facilities in Brazil and Costa Rica). A Mexican partnership called Christus Muguerza is building and operating hospitals in Mexico that meet American standards.  It has identified 40 communities along the U.S.-Mexican border where it intends to build facilities.

Some 40,000 to 80,000 American seniors live in Mexico.  In addition to health care at lower prices (Medicare does not cover care outside the United States), a number of them receive nursing home care at bargain prices.  In most areas of the United States, the cost of nursing home care can easily surpass $60,000 per year.  But in Mexico, high quality long-term care costs only about one-fourth as much.  For about $1,300 per month, a senior can get a studio apartment that includes laundry service, cleaning, meal preparation and access to around-the-clock nursing care.

Latin America .   Costa Rica and Panama are popular destinations for medical travel.  Around 150,000 foreigners sought care in Costa Rica in 2006. This is amazing, considering that Costa Rica is a country of only about 4 million people.  By contrast, in 2006 just 250,000 foreigners sought care in the United States — a country with nearly 300 million more residents.

Panama has high quality health care, concentrated primarily in the metropolitan areas.  Medical standards at Panama's top hospitals are comparable to those in the United States.  Indeed, many Panamanian physicians were trained in the United States.  Hospital Punta Pacifica in Panama City, Panama, is an affiliate of U.S.-based Johns Hopkins International. Medical care in Panama is 40 percent to 70 percent less expensive than in the United States.

Medical Tourism within the United States .   Domestic medical travel involving patients seeking more advanced treatment facilities in other cities or states is relatively common. Specialty hospitals built to provide orthopedic and cardiac treatment attract patients from many communities.  These facilities generally provide better quality care and higher patient satisfaction than general hospitals. Many patients travel great distances to receive care at the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic and the Mayo Clinic, two high quality health care providers.

Read Article as PDF