In 2011, South Korea’s Jeju province started preparing to become a Northeast Asian centre for health tourism. Their efforts spanned investing and encouraging foreign companies and countries to invest in its health establishments. Fast forward 10 years, South Korea emerged as one of the top medical tourism destinations in the world in 2011, with almost 11,700 patients travelling to the country for medical reasons.
Over the last decade, this South Korean medical tourism transition spotlights and reinforces the growth potential of global medical tourism, which is expected to grow at a CAGR of 30.5 per cent between 2022 and 2032. The Korean story also doubles up as a classic example of how countries can actively make accommodations to reserve their spot in this promising economic sector.
Countries like the UAE, Croatia, India, and Thailand are also joining South Korea in the quest to turn into medical tourism hotspots. They are focusing on delivering excellent care for treatments like hip and knee surgery, bariatric surgery, cardiology, and sex change, respectively. With this, it is safe to say that the future of medical tourism looks bright.
Let us look at the current state of global medical tourism and examine which are likely to be the top destinations in the coming years.
Current state of medical tourism
The global pandemic spurred a sudden blow to the growing medical tourism industry in 2020. In response to social distancing and the sudden panic, several wellness centres, hospitals, and medical tourism service providers temporarily ceased operations. The core reasons for this drop though were the introduction of travel bans and the worldwide postponement of most elective surgeries to contain the spread of the infectious disease.
While these restrictions were unavoidable, COVID-19 successfully created a new branch within medical tourism — vaccination tourism. It concerned travellers willing to spend considerable money to go to a location with an ample supply of Covid-19 vaccinations to combine vaccination and tourism as their trip objectives.
Following reversing tides around the pandemic panic, the industry’s trajectory started changing once again. The situation is returning to the pre-pandemic patterns. Further, patients’ changing lifestyles and choices are fuelling the industry to grow stronger by the day. It has been seen that 22 per cent of patients want to pay less, while 56 per cent want access to better care. In addition, 10 per cent seek care immediately without having to wait in line, and 18 per cent look for a treatment option unavailable at home. All of this is adding up to the demand for global medical tourism.
While the desire for improved care grows on one side, the raging inflation and costs of obtaining healthcare in countries like the US are making it gruelling for households to strike a balance between funding healthcare and income.
The last few years have witnessed an increase in insurance premiums, co-pays, deductibles, and other out-of-pocket costs that are eating into the finances of many households. In addition, due to regulatory issues, like the rising prices of prescription and speciality drugs, healthcare waste, and the increasing prevalence of chronic diseases, healthcare-related service expenses are skyrocketing.
In contrast to growing medical costs in the developed world, developing nations are opening doors to accessing quality care at more affordable prices. To put things in perspective, consider a heart bypass surgery. On average, it would cost US$113,000 in the US, while in Thailand, it would amount to only US$13,000 in a private hospital, which is of significant difference.
Moreover, there is also a spike in consciousness about personal appearances and self-care, leading to the demand for healthcare facilities around cosmetic, fat-reduction, and acne treatment services. Again, these facilities are more affordable in Middle Eastern and Eastern countries, driving a wave of demand for medical tourism in favour of these destinations.
While there needs to be more precise data on which specific destinations will be the future hotspots for global medical tourism and why, the Medical Tourism Index assesses a country’s medical travel potential based on its economy, healthcare costs, quality, and public image. Some of the upcoming medical tourism destinations in line with that include:
United Arab Emirates
Business Wire reported that the healthcare sector in the UAE is expected to rise at a CAGR of 8.5 per cent between 2018 and 2023. Further, a report by Euromonitor International suggests that revenues from medical tourism in the UAE are expected to reach Dh19 billion by 2023. The advanced infrastructure of the country and its robust government initiatives can be credited for this growth. They provided tourists with hands-on access to the Abu Dhabi Medical Tourism e-portal, which supports hotel booking, transportation, and recreational activities. The capital city is also gaining growing recognition for cosmetic and beauty tourism, with a 30-40 per cent growth over the past five years. Due to regular government initiatives, it will likely continue to be significant in the coming years. The second UAE city to be a part of this list is Dubai, which has proven its mettle to be more than just a symbol of high-rise towers and premium lifestyle. Its friendly environment welcomes nearly 500,000 medical tourists annually, with 40,000 healthcare professionals in the public and private sectors. The recent launch of the Dubai Health Experience (DXH) e-portal for booking doctor appointments and planning itineraries further paints a promising outlook for the coming years.
Lower costs and top-notch technology drive Japan’s medical services, making it an attractive medical tourism hotspot. For example, Japan offers nearly 70 per cent reduced costs compared to the US for treatments like hip surgery with similar proficiency. In 2011, Japan launched the ‘visa for medical stays’ offering a good mix of treatment, check-ups, and sightseeing across the Far Eastern nation to boost this sector. These visas have been made available for the patient party accompanying the patient. Moreover, they have been carefully designed considering humanitarian aspects. With measures like these, Japan consolidates its position as a mainstay in medical tourism.
Medical tourism in India is expected to become a 10 billion dollar industry by 2023 with varied health services, and notable success in diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccinations. When the world battled intense lockdowns and the medical tourism industry suffered, India issued 1,000,000 medical visas (2019-2022), emerging as one of the strongest players in the medical tourism sector. The country’s Prime Minister boasted of more than 600 nationally and globally accredited health institutes providing quality and cost-effective treatments, making health care access equitable. India is also promoting AI and technology in health, with over 4,000 health tech startups working toward this end. This does paint a promising picture of promising prospects for the subcontinent!
Singapore ranks first for the quality of healthcare facilities and services globally, basking in the second position in the Medical Tourism Index. As of 2019, Singapore’s accessible and high-quality healthcare services attracted more than 500,000 overseas visitors. Singapore is renowned for its premium, all-inclusive healthcare services, which include everything from health tests to surgery, with the support of highly qualified medical professionals and state-of-the-art facilities. As a fact, Singapore has also improved its international standing by responding to the pandemic more effectively than its industrialised peers. Therefore, patients can be assured of reduced infection risks, owing to a practical, cautious, and successful strategy, making it a simple choice for travelers’ post-pandemic overseas medical trips.
The way ahead
The recent trends in medical tourism reflect that even though developed countries have advanced technologies to offer, the burden of mounting healthcare costs overpowers ordinary people’s treatment choices. With little to no deduction in quality of care, medical tourism hotspots are leading the change in health services while creating growth opportunities in national revenues. Be it a tiny Croatian town, Zabok, offering specialised orthopaedic services, or larger countries like Spain, governments are making sure to fulfill the growing demand in the sector and putting the best foot forward in offering advanced medical tourism facilities.
Kinzal Jalan is an experienced B2B content marketer with demonstrated expertise in Health, SaaS & Technology.
This article appears in the latest issue of Omnia Health Magazine. Read the full issue online today.