What is medical tourism: definitions, terminology, and types

Medical tourism is a newly coined word. Many have not even heard of medical tourism but are actually familiar with the practice. Medical tourism is increasingly popular around the world and it is growing very fast. The global medical tourism market is projected to grow from $13.98 billion in 2021 to $53.51 billion in 2028. Many hospitals and clinics all around the world are adding medical tourism departments.

Traveling abroad for receiving medical care returns to hundreds of years ago. People travel to other countries and places in the form of religious acts like a pilgrimage or seeking a spa or hot spring for treatment purposes. But what is medical tourism? There are many definitions of it but no accepted one. Stay with us to the end of this article to learn more about medical tourism and its current practices. 

In this essay we are going to define medical tourism, read about eight definitions of medical tourism. Also, you will know more about the wide scope of medical tourism and how it is related to health tourism.

what is medical tourism?

Definitions of Medical Tourism

Medical Tourism is generally defined as traveling outside the home country for receiving medical treatment. For many years, it was only limited to people from less developed countries who sought medical treatments that were not available in their home country. They travel in hope of receiving better services, better medical care, and better equipment.

But now as the most famous medical tourism destinations reveal, the trend is reversed. People from developed countries travel to less developed countries to receive medical care. Their incentives include availability and affordability. They seek medical treatment which has no waiting list and is also affordable and cost-effective. There are no exact statistics about the number of medical tourists. This lack of reliable statistics largely turns back to the fact that there is no consensus about the definition of medical tourism.

9 Definitions of Medical Tourism

  1. When consumers elect to travel across international borders to receive some form of medical treatment, which may span the full range of medical services (most commonly includes dental care, cosmetic surgery, elective surgery, and fertility treatment). Setting the boundary of what is health and counts as medical tourism for the purposes of trade accounts is not straightforward. Within this range of treatment, not all would be included within the health trade. Cosmetic surgery for esthetic rather than reconstructive reasons, for example, would be considered outside the health boundary – Lunt N., Smith R. (2011)
  2. When a person, whose primary and explicit purpose in traveling is to obtain medical treatment in foreign country, excluding: emergency tourists, wellness tourists, expatriates seeking care in their country of residence, patients traveling to neighboring regions to the closest available care – McKinsey, 2008
  3. Broadly speaking it is the act of traveling to obtain medical care. There are three categories of medical tourism: outbound, inbound, and intrabound (domestic) – Deloitte, 2008
  4. Term coined by travel agencies and the mass media for the practice of traveling across national borders to obtain health care. It also refers to the practice of healthcare providers traveling internationally to deliver healthcare, which is both pejorative and less common – Segen’s Medical Dictionary, 2012
  5. When people who live in one country travel to another country to receive medical, dental, and surgical care while at the same time receiving equal to or greater care than they would have in their own country. They are traveling for medical care because of affordability, better access to care or a higher level of quality of care. “Domestic Medical Tourism” is where people who live in one country travel to another city, region or state to receive medical, dental, and surgical care while at the same time receiving equal to or greater care than they would have in their own home city, and are traveling for medical care because of affordability, better access to care or a higher level of quality of care. Medical Tourism Association
medical tourism definitions

6. When patients intentionally leave their country of residence outside of established cross-border care arrangements in pursuit of non-emergency medical interventions (namely surgeries) abroad that are commonly paid for out-of-pocket – Crooks et al, 2010

7. Conscious activity, in which a traveler (a medical tourist) aims to receive healthcare services – in his or her own country or abroad to preserve (or acquire) a better health condition, and/or aesthetic appearance of his or her own body, sometimes combined with relaxation, regeneration of physical and mental strength, sightseeing and entertainment – Lubowiecki-Vikuk, 2012

8. Involves people who travel to a different place to receive treatment for a disease, an ailment, or a condition, or to undergo a cosmetic procedure, and who are seeking a lower cost of care, higher quality of care, better access to care or different care than what they could receive at home. Medical tourist generally ill or seeking cosmetic/dental surgical procedures or enhancements – Global Spa Summit Research Report, 2011

9. A medical tourist is someone who travels outside of his or her own country for surgery or elective treatment of a medical condition. If we apply this narrow definition, we DO NOT include: dental tourists, cosmetic surgery tourists, spa and wellness travelers, “accidental” medical tourists (business travelers and holidaymakers who fall ill while abroad and are admitted to hospital), expatriates who access healthcare in a foreign country – K. Pollard, International Medical Tourism Journal, 2011

we only have selected a few definitions, they are many more. What do you think about these definitions? Which one better defines the medical tourism industry? To better decide you’d better know about the wide spectrum of medical tourism. 

Types of Medical Tourism

Medical tourism is known by different names such as surgical tourism, dental tourism, cosmetic tourism, etc. But a big name that you most commonly heard in association with medical tourism is health tourism. Actually, they are not synonymous. But mostly they are used interchangeably. Many have tried to define medical tourism as a subcategory of health tourism. Health tourism in this definition is an umbrella term for medical and wellness tourism. 

Dr. C. Constantinides from HealthCare Cybernetics distinguishes both terms and defines “health tourism” as services related to health and involving travel. As a collective term “health tourism” covers services, which are classified into eight categories: medical tourism, dental tourism, spa tourism, wellness tourism, sports tourism, culinary tourism, accessible tourism, and assisted residential tourism. K. Pollard, on the other hand, introduces a similar distinction of, what he calls comprehensively, “health and medical travel”.

He distinguished health tourism into five categories: medical tourism, dental tourism, cosmetic surgery (or esthetic) tourism, spa tourism, and wellness tourism. Here The point of distinction is the issue of necessity. Orthopedic surgery is necessary so it is medical tourism but cosmetic surgery is elective.  Hence, health tourism is a broader concept than medical tourism, they may apply interchangeably. However, the main problem that exists in defining medical tourism also happens to health tourism. 

What is the solution?

As you may have noticed, this sample of definitions reveals great incoherence in terminology. The medical tourism market is an industry with significant gaps of evidence-based, transparent knowledge on the topic. So far, it has been working by sharing-knowledge and exchanging-experience basis. It lacks systematic and authoritative data collection concerning health services trade.

types of medical tourism

This however is not possible as long as the sector is not well defined. All in all, this is a relatively recently recognized, unregulated industry with speculation-based insight.

So what can we do?  Certainly, we need more academic study of the field and trusted statistics and information about the incentives and destinations of medical tourists.  Looking into medical tourism as a highly specialized field can change the whole picture completely. we should consider the legal and ethical issues and risks in medical tourism also we should distinguish medical tourism from tourism in general as it entails many specific issues which are vital for health.

Education is the lost key in the medical tourism industry. Educating highly knowledgeable, professional health travel agents will contribute a lot to the field. Professional health travel agents will be of great help to international patients and help reduce the risks and complexities that may occur during health travel and more people choose to go abroad for medical services. In our pursuit to contribute to the medical tourism industry, we are going to launch Bookingsmed academy.

Bookingsmed Academy

Bookingsmed academy is established for raising awareness of the medical tourism field, promoting more scientific research, and also holding professional medical tourism courses by the most influential and successful figures in the field from all over the world.

We believe medical tourism is not just about offering medical services to a person in your country, it entails many medical, legal, and ethical issues, we should consider many nuances, so for the permanent development of the field, we need highly professional health travel agents.

What do you think? How can we define medical tourism that is short, simple, and also comprehensive?

comment and share your opinion with us. 

Stay tuned for more updates on Bookingsmed academy HERE. 

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