Travel in and of itself can be rewarding in many ways. However, there are times when travel is warranted for a potentially life-changing health issue – which for some, may be unavoidable.

Electing to travel across international borders to receive medical treatment is defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as medical tourism. Also known as health travel, treatments in medical tourism run the entire gamut from wellness services and health check-ups to invasive and cosmetic surgery. Typically, treatments sought involve dental care, fertility treatment, elective, and cosmetic surgery.

The motivation for medical travel is the expectation of equal or greater care at a more affordable cost than local services provide. Gaining better access to services or higher quality of care are also driving factors.

The Evolution of Health Travel

It might surprise you to learn that medical tourism’s inception can be found in archaeology. Ancient Mesopotamians searching for eye disorder cures journeyed to the temple of a healing god or goddess at Tell Brak, Syria. Thousands of years later the Greeks and Romans made their way on foot or by ship to spas all around the Mediterranean and to the Asclepia Temples dedicated to the Greek god of medicine and also considered the world’s first health centres.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, European upper classes flocked to spa towns such as St. Moritz and Bath for palliative purposes. In time, wealthier citizens of underdeveloped countries began travelling to prominent medical facilities in the United States or Europe for invasive medical procedures or cancer treatments because of the high level of specialization and experience required by these procedures.

However, over the last couple of decades there has been a reversal in the trend, as a growing number of patients from developed nations such as Europe, the U.S., and Canada are travelling to supposedly “underdeveloped” nations seeking affordable, high-quality medical care or treatment options that are not locally available.

Medical tourism, otherwise known as global healthcare, is on the rise and expected to continue its ascent as the International Healthcare Research Center (IHRC) reports that medical tourism is likely to grow 14 percent annually. A report by Visa and Oxford Economics in the American Journal of Medicine states that the number of medical tourists in the world is expected to increase by 25 percent per year.

Which brings us to the question of the current best countries, hospitals, or centres for medical tourism.

Destination Health

Healthy Travel Media, publisher of Patients Beyond Borders, an online medical travel resource lists the current top medical tourism destinations around the world. A summary of some of the top contenders are:  

India

Medical travel to India comprises a mixture of affordable quality healthcare, enchanting scenery and landscape, luxury, and pleasure. India endeavours to provide cutting-edge technology in their health care services.

Patients travelling to India can expect to save between 65 to 90 percent for comparable services in the U.S., making it one of the most visited countries for health travel. Some private hospitals even offer healthcare packages including airport transfer, free in-room WiFi, and private chefs.

Many hospitals in India are accredited by the National Accreditation Board for Hospitals and Healthcare Providers (NABH) and the Joint Commission International (JCI). The waiting time is short, as scheduling surgery or intervention is done once the diagnosis is confirmed.

Brazil

The World Health Organization ranks Brazil as Latin America’s best in healthcare delivery with 43 hospitals accredited by the JCI. Brazil is the third most visited country, below the U.S. and China, for cosmetic and plastic surgery.

Florianopolis and Sao Paulo are the two main cities known for affordable, high-quality, state-of-the-art medical technological advances and innovation in cosmetic and plastic surgical services. Medical travellers save around 20 to 30 percent compared to U.S. costs on special procedures – like the Brazillian butt-lift – performed by world-famous surgeons.

Malaysia

Malaysia was named number one “Health and Medical Tourism Destination of the year” in 2015 and 2016 by International Medical Travel Journal and is among the best providers of healthcare in all of Southeast Asia.

Health travellers to Malaysia save 65 to 80 percent on health cost compared to the U.S., at clinics with five-star rooms like Prince Court Medical Centre. Medical tourists are offered concierge services upon arrival at either international airport in Malaysia by the Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC).


Thailand

Thailand has the highest number of internationally accredited hospitals in Southeast Asia. Besides cosmetic and dermatological procedures, it is most known for advanced dental work.

Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok is accredited by Global Health Accreditation as one of the best hospitals in Thailand and provides advanced healthcare services to over 400,000 medical tourists annually. Health travellers can afford the expense of spending time recuperating in the private recovery gardens – which are rich in Thailand’s culture – as they save 50 to 75 percent on medical expenses compared to similar services in the U.S.

Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand

Taiwan

Taiwan is on the verge of becoming a hub for medical tourism in the treatment of cardiac diseases and orthopedic procedures. The National Taiwan University Hospital, the first kidney transplant centre in Asia, provides affordable and high-quality treatment for medical tourists, with patients typically saving 40 to 55 percent compared to similar services in the U.S.

South Korea

One of the most tech-savvy and technologically advanced countries in the world, South Korea boasts advanced healthcare services with state-of-the-art technology and well-trained staff.

The Wooridul Spine Hospital in Seoul is the country’s top performer of minimally-invasive spinal surgery and offers wonderful accommodations and amenities.

South Korea extends insurance coverage to medical tourists, covering injury, stress disorders, and death as a result of the procedures done or treatment given to a patient. Costs for treatment in South Korea are 30 to 45 percent less than the United States.

Singapore

Singapore retains top ranking in the WHO’s list of healthcare in Asian countries.

Gleneagles Hospital, one of the best hospitals in Singapore, offers excellent medical services at top-notch facilities with well-trained specialists. Medical travellers to Singapore save 25 to 40 percent of what they would spend on similar services in the U.S.

Gleneagles Hospital, Singapore

Becoming a medical tourist requires a well-thought-out plan, careful consideration of the options and in-depth research of available facilities as the medical tourism market becomes more competitive, with more countries contending for key roles in the market.

Despite the challenges, travelling for your health can be both physically beneficial as well as an emotionally rewarding experience, with quality care and a relaxing ambiance provided at an affordable cost.