A few years ago, a friend of mine who needed knee replacement surgery, on both his knees, told me he was heading to India to have the procedure done. When I asked him why he chose to travel all that way, his answer was simple: “Because it's much cheaper to do it there.” My friend's surgery was successful, his life is now pain-free, and his savings are still intact.
With cost-competitive medical services, coupled with their traditional practices of yoga and Ayurveda, India has developed a burgeoning medical tourism industry, catering to foreigners who need orthopaedic surgeries, bone marrow transplants, and eye surgery, but who cannot afford it in their own country.
India is also a top destination for cardiac bypass surgery at their Asian Heart Institute, which has a 99.83 per cent success rate. As a result, foreign tourist arrivals to India have increased six times between 2009 to 2019 with international arrivals on medical visas growing from 112,389 to 697,453 for the period. (Mallapur 2021)
India is not the only country building a medical tourism sector. Brazil, Panama, Costa Rica, Turkey, Malaysia, Singapore, Mexico, and Thailand are all taking advantage of this global trend. Today, the global medical tourism market size accounts for US$104.68 billion in 2019 and is projected to reach $273.72 billion by 2027.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development describes medical tourists as those who “travel across international borders with the intention of receiving some form of medical treatment”. This covers a range of medical services but most often includes dental care, cosmetic surgery, weight loss, organ transplant, orthopaedic surgery, fertility treatments, and other high-end procedures. Globally, it is estimated that between 14,000,000 to 16,000,000 patients travelled outside their home countries to seek treatment in 2017.
With increasing costs for health care in the United States, and close to 25 per cent of its population being either uninsured or underinsured, more than 1.4 million Americans sought health care in different countries around the world in 2017. From all accounts, it is clear that health care in the United States is expensive when compared to other countries. For example, the total cost for heart bypass surgery is US$123,000 in America, US$12,100 in Malaysia, and US$7,300 in India. While the total costs for angioplasty was US$47,000 in America, US$5,700 in India, and US$4,200 in Thailand. ( www.Statista.com 2019)
The American Journal of Medicine suggests that Americans seeking cheaper health care will increase by 25 per cent every year as they can save 30 per cent to 65 per cent on the cost for procedures outside of the US. This has led to several leading US medical centres, including “Harvard, Boston University, Johns Hopkins, and the Cleveland Clinic, establishing hospitals and clinics outside of the United States, hoping to capitalise on local and foreign medical tourism”.
What's more, health-care brokers and medical tourism companies are now readily available in the United States and abroad, promoting “sun and surgery” with air travel and hotel accommodations, in addition to arranging admission to various hospitals and access to physicians globally.
When one visits the online site www.health-tourism.com you can compare and contrast countries according to the various health services offered, the associated costs for each procedure, and the international accreditation given to their doctors. From the information presented it was clear who the global leaders in the sector were. Malaysia won the IMTJ Medical Travel Award for destination of the year, as well as the award for the international cosmetic surgery clinic of the year in 2016. Thailand dominated the market with 2.8 million medical tourists and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil is considered the world capital of plastic surgery. Jamaica is not listed on the site.
Closer to home, the Cayman Islands is expanding their tourism infrastructure with Health City — one of the largest health-care complexes in the Caribbean for cardiac surgery, cardiology, orthopaedics, paediatrics, endocrinology, and pulmonology. This facility is slated to house 2,000 beds, a medical research team, and an assisted living centre. Cayman is counting on a percentage of the seven million Americans who may be confronted with the likelihood of increased insurance prices to take the one-hour flight to the Cayman Islands for affordable health care, instead of paying additional costs in the US.
The president of the Medical Tourism Association Renee-Marie Stephano argues that the proximity of the Cayman Islands to the United States and international recognition as a tourist destination give Cayman an advantage on the global competition for medical travel dollars in the Caribbean.
In 2017, Jamaica was rated the world's best destination in the Caribbean. Tourists visiting Jamaica spend more nights on the island when compared to other popular Caribbean islands such as Barbados, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba. In 2017, the average length of stay for stopover tourists in Jamaica averaged nearly nine days, compared to six days in Barbados. (Source: Jamaica Tourist Board)
In 2016, the Medical Tourism Index (MTI) reported that Jamaica maintained average scores in three of the most important areas of the medical tourism industry which are:
(1) health-care costs
(2) attractiveness of the destination
The government agency in Jamaica responsible for trade and investment, Jampro, argues that these statistics give Jamaica a competitive advantage over our competitors, including Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica, thereby ranking us overall in 17th place in the MTI 2016 report. Additionally, Jamaica has maintained its number two ranking on the destination attractiveness sub-index since 2014. (Jampro 2019)
The United States is Jamaica's largest tourism market, accounting for over one million stopover visitors in 2017, or 64 per cent of our total stopover arrivals. Unlike traditional tourism, which gives revenues of US$113 per person per day spent by stopover visitors, medical tourism has the potential to generate higher earnings of approximately US$1,300 per medical tourist per day. How can Jamaica develop a medical tourism sector to capitalise on this growing global trend?
Lisa Hanna is Member of Parliament for St Ann South Eastern, People's National Partyspokesperson on foreign affairs and foreign trade, and a former Cabinet member.