Health without borders

Medical tourism – travelling abroad to access healthcare – is worth US$10bn and set to become normal practice for future generations

The practice of crossing borders in search of better health is not, as some might have you believe, a totally modern phenomenon. 

Ancient civilisations recognised the therapeutic effects of mineral thermal springs and sacred temple baths, and constructed resorts for those ready to absorb the perceived medical benefits. The kernel of today’s custom remains the same: the practice is rooted in a desire for alternative solutions.

Josef Woodman is the head of Patients Beyond Borders, a US organisation offering consumers information about medical travel. He estimates that the number of medical tourists is growing at a rate of between 25 and 30 per cent per year, with much of the jump coming from North, Southeast and South Asia.

“Around 10 years ago, there were around two million medical travellers worldwide. Now there are over 12 million,” he says. “From Thailand’s Bumrungrad International Hospital to Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Centre in Antigua to Johns Hopkins Singapore medical centre, health travellers now have access to a full array of the world’s safest, best choices in healthcare and physicians.”

Current medical tours tend to fall into one of three categories. First, patients who need critical care that is not available in their home country. Second, someone elects to have treatment in another country to bypass long waiting lists or save money. And third, a patient checks into a rehabilitation centre to improve the quality of their lives after major surgery or a traumatic event.

When imagining the future of healthcare, thoughts quickly turn to the next generation. Will the world’s borders be looser or tightened in response to turmoil?

“People are exercising their right of choice,” says Ahmed Faiyaz, head of healthcare transaction services at Ernst & Young in Dubai. “They are choosing medical care in the best conditions they deserve. Borders are breaking down, air travel has become more affordable and you can take your money abroad and spend it. That was not the case 30 or 40 years ago.”

Dubai is one of the major cities fostering a stable, inviting and results-focused healthcare system, open to all. And, says Faiyaz, it is well placed to do so. Some 12 million tourists visit Dubai per year, a number expected to grow to 20 million by 2020. A relaxed visa system has made the emirate even more accessible for those who are visiting for medical appointments. Dubai also enjoys an attractive location (being within a four-hour flight of one-third of the world’s population), so Faiyaz sees that, going forward, some 10 per cent of visitors could be medical tourists.

Factor in the rising number of centres of excellence and range of experienced medical staff from across the world from the US and Germany to Russia and India and that target could well be surpassed. In first half of 2015, Dubai attracted 260,000 medical tourists, up 12 per cent from the same period a year ago.

The advantages for patients, then, are clear. In addition, countries that excel at providing outstanding health services often see their economies and reputations strengthen. 

“When care is consolidated in centres of excellence, those places live and breathe that condition,” says Faiyaz. “Those doctors see high volumes of patients, and the chances of medical errors and readmissions are much lower..”

Common concerns among critics, though, are that medical tourism favours those with higher incomes, corporatises healthcare and alleviates pressure on governments to do more for their citizens. "Where essential services are not available, the people of that country should still be able to benefit," says Faiyaz.

At the same time, borderless healthcare doesn’t always require a patient to pack her suitcase. Telemedicine allows doctors to diagnose patients in other countries using communications technology, and is a sector likely to expand.

Borders are breaking down, air travel has become more affordable and you can take your money abroad and spend it

Ahmed Faiyaz, Head of healthcare transaction services, Ernst & Young Dubai

Meanwhile, arrangements between countries to host hospitals also come under the banner of medical tourism. In Ras Al Khaimah in the UAE, for example, the 248-bed Sheikh Khalifa Specialist Hospital is operated and managed by Seoul National University Hospital in South Korea, which also provides around 15 per cent of medical staff. Doctors and nurses also give training to local physicians. Similar agreements boost relations, such as Abu Dhabi’s popular Cleveland Clinic.

“These arrangements deepen the bond,” says Faiyaz, adding that in Dubai there are adverts for UAE-based dentists and clinics in languages other than Arabic or English.

When imagining the future of healthcare, thoughts quickly turn to the next generation. Will the world’s borders be looser or tightened in response to turmoil? And might medical tourism have saved some economies to bounce back?

These questions cannot be answered comprehensively yet. But from researchers to those in the medical sector, an almost certain rise is forecast. The global medical tourism market will grow from US$10bn to $US30bn by 2019, according to Transparency Market Research.

“It will go up as people are more educated and become even more tech-savvy,” says Faiyaz. “Many will be able to afford to travel to wherever the best quality healthcare is. It is an engine of growth and development.”