Medical Tourism: A Destination Operation

Recently, I had a client contact me regarding her upcoming trip to India. “Allison, I am embarking on a new adventure,” she said.  “I am traveling to India for dental work. A fifth of the cost and the facilities and technology are just as good, if not better,” she told me.  The previous week, another client called regarding his knee-replacement surgery in Hyderabad. “Visiting India has always been on my list. Instead of bringing home a souvenir, I am returning with a new knee!”

Medical tourism is a term that describes traveling internationally to seek healthcare. The services can include all ranges of care, including cardiac surgery, joint-replacement surgery, dental work, and cosmetic/reconstructive procedures. There is also reproductive tourism, defined as traveling abroad for surrogate pregnancy, in-vitro fertilization, and other assisted treatments. To date, over 50 countries have identified medical tourism as a national industry and many even advertise the medical services as a vacation. The most popular destinations include Argentina, India, Singapore, South Africa, South Korea, Costa Rica and Hong Kong. Columbia is also reputed for advanced care in transplants, cardiovascular surgery and plastic surgery.

In May, the New York Daily News wrote, “Medical tourism skyrockets…Turnover is expected to total $100 billion in 2012, compared with $79 billion in 2010.” However, according to the International Medical Travel Journal (IMTJ), there are no firm statistics that demonstrate the number of Americans seeking medical services abroad or how much money is attributed to foreign care.

So how does an individual seek out medical services abroad? First, the person contacts a health tourism provider. The provider then reviews the medical report and a certified team that includes doctors and consultants discusses the destinations, choice of facilities, anticipated costs, and duration of stay. After the patient signs the necessary paperwork and consent forms, a visa is obtained from the appropriate embassy. The patient travels to the destination and meets the case executive who has been assigned by the medical tourism provider. The case executive is responsible for the accommodations, treatment, and general assistance during recovery. Once the recovery has completed, the patient can return home or remain in the destination at the discretion of the visa terms.

Karyn Hanken, RN, has been a traveling nurse for 16 years and recently returned from a four-year post in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Although she believes medical tourism can be a good option, she also expresses her concerns with the quality of care abroad:  “A country may proclaim to have advanced technology and modern facilities, but is the staff well-trained and familiar with the equipment?” Hanken also recommends that patients be very specific when selecting a facility. She states, “Not to pre-judge any culture, but I would not just research where a physician or surgeon went to school but more importantly where they had their internship and received training. Request a list of referrals from several patients. Also, check how many procedures have been performed not just at the facility but by the specific doctor. The best indicator of a physician’s skills is communicated from past patients.”

The contributing factors for increased popularity in medical tourism include high healthcare premiums, long wait times, technological improvements and the ease and affordability of international travel. In the United States, the leading factor for medical tourism is cheaper prices abroad. Comparatively, the primary issue in the United Kingdom is waiting times for certain procedures. Regarding finances, Hanken states, “Don’t always look at cost as the bottom line. Evaluate the pros and cons. In the end, it is better to pay more and have quality work, even abroad.”

Many who have participated in what medical tourism offers are pleased with the experience. Janet Caldwell, a client who has traveled to India and Nepal several times in the past five years, had cosmetic surgery in Bangalore in 2011. Caldwell believes medical tourism will continue to grow in high numbers. She says, “The doctors, nurses and staff were excellent. My recovery accommodations were like a luxury hotel, and it was all showered with the unrivaled Indian hospitality and service. It was a destination operation, and well worth it.”

For more information about medical tourism, please visit the Medical Tourism Association and the International Medical Travel Journal.

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About the author: Allison Sodha

Allison Sodha is an India Destination Specialist and the owner of Sodha Travel, a company that coordinates private tours to South Asia. She is also a Destination Expert for AFAR and has written features for Little India, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and various travel publications. Allison resides with her family in Portland, Oregon, but considers India her second home. Please visit:

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