When the concept first became popularized over a decade ago, the idea of Americans traveling to other countries for health services was touted as a significant cost saver. It never really was used enough to make a meaningful difference, but it still occurs and the potential remains. PriceWaterhouseCooper issues a report giving its perspective on medical tourism today. (PWC Report) PWC includes in its concept of medical tourism people who travel for wellness purposes, like going to a resort spa, as well as for weight management or cosmetic services. At the other end are actual medical services like cardiac or orthopedic surgeries. In 2016 PWC estimates there were around 14 million medical tourism visits worth around $68 billion and wellness visits at $563 billion, including people from the US and people coming to the US. Thailand was the number one destination, with over 2.2 million visits, followed by Mexico with 1.1 million, Brazil with 900,000 and the US with 800,000. The US is number one in dollars at $8 billion, with Thailand next at $6.9 billion. Indonesia had the most people leaving to get services elsewhere, with 600,000 patients, followed by the US with 500,000 and China with 400,000. People’s primary reasons for getting services elsewhere, as you might expect, were quality and cost. The wellness oriented visits may have a tourism related purpose as well.
PWC estimates that medical tourism will grow to $125 billion by 2021 and wellness tourism to $808 billion. They have to put in a plug for AI, saying it will help people understand quality and cost advantages of different locations. I don’t buy it. Health care is very emotional for patients, especially for serious issues like heart problems, cancer, etc. I don’t think getting a bunch of data and analytics substitutes for personal interactions and established relationships in determining where to get medical care.Obviously there is a lot of medical tourism into the US, much of it from the wealthy in MidEast countries, but also from Canada, China and other countries where people are frustrated with waits for, quality of or availability of medical services. I suspect that Americans will generally continue to be leery of traveling outside the US to get care and will put up with the costs here as a trade-off for convenience and perceptions of quality. But continuing to push travel to certain countries to get services can help save money and a number of countries offer world-class quality.