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All abroad: the value of the medical tourism market

by Heather Mayer, DOTmed News Reporter | January 03, 2011

Passport to surgery
Most commonly, patients travel abroad for elective surgeries. Orthopedic, spine and cardiac surgeries make up the bulk of the procedures, says Hoeberechts. But there is a fair share of general surgeries as well.

"The biggest reason [people travel abroad] is cost," he says. "In other cases, it's purely a matter of quality. People are willing to pay more than the U.S. [charges] for some procedures."
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Countries don't necessarily specialize in certain procedures, says Hoeberechts, but in some cases patients may choose one country over another because of its reputation for a procedure or surgery. Most often, where a certain procedure is best executed boils down to individual hospitals.

India is a popular choice for major surgeries, not something small like a hernia repair, which is common in Mexico.

"The savings related to hernia repair [in India] are somewhat negated by the additional cost of travel and lodging," says Hoeberechts. "It probably doesn't make sense to go to India for hernia repair."

But, Mexico is perfect for that type of surgery, he says. Even with the cost of travel, the expense is much less.

Mexico has become a top medical tourism destination for U.S. patients due to its proximity, with 40,000 to 80,000 American seniors spending their retirement there, many receiving home health care.

Other countries attractive to Americans due to their proximity include Costa Rica and Panama for dental services or cosmetic surgeries.

For orthopedic and cardiovascular cases, Southeast Asian countries are becoming popular destinations, due to high-quality health care infrastructure and the number of U.S.-accredited hospitals and physicians.

For example, in 2004, Singapore had 270,000 medical tourists. It's expected that the country will see 410,000 tourists by 2012. Malaysia is becoming a famous medical tourism destination, with 300,000 tourists in 2006. India saw 150,000 tourists in 2002 and that number tripled in 2007.

But the medical tourism destination that sees the most foreign patients annually is Thailand, with 900,000 to 1.2 million patients. The country's Bumrungrad International Hospital has made headlines for treating foreign patients, with 58,000 U.S. patients in 2005 and 64,000 in 2006.

The health care facility, located in Bangkok, was the first hospital to win the Award of Excellence in the health care tourism category, in the Thailand Tourism Awards in 2008. It is also the world's first internationally accredited hospital.

World-renowned for its top-rated service to both domestic and international patients, the Thai hospital is a go-to facility for many travelers. The hospital treats more than 1.1 million patients annually, with more than 407,000 international patients from more than 190 countries.