Medical tourism, or health tourism, occurs when patients travel to a foreign country in order to receive medical treatment.(2) This type of tourism is increasingly being referred to as ‘global healthcare’. ‘Medical tourism’ generally implies a packaged tour organised by an agent that specialises in arranging health-related travel, whilst ‘health tourism’ implies travel across borders in order to receive health rejuvenation. The latter term has also been used to imply wellness travel, such as visiting hot springs that emphasises spirituality or rejuvenation.(3) Medical tourism will be used for the purposes of this paper to refer to those seeking medical procedures either through an organised tour or individually.
Patients travel to another country in order to receive faster, cheaper or better medical services than they would receive in their home countries. This can include a wide array of procedures ranging from elective and preventative procedures to urgent care. The most popular elective medical procedures include joint replacements (hip and knee), cardiac surgery and cosmetic surgeries (liposuction, breast augmentation and facelifts).(4)
Medical tourism packages often offer a consultation, treatment (surgery), a physical therapist and personal assistant, and recovery in a spa.(5) Medical tourism therefore offers the patient a chance to receive medical treatment and recover in a vacation-like setting. Oftentimes patients recuperate at medical tourism hotels that resemble five-star hotels.(6) They can also opt to partake in tourism activities in the host country prior to departing from it.
When the medical tourism industry began to be established as its own industry, it was conceived as the movement of patients from the Global North to the Global South in search of faster and more affordable healthcare.(7) Medical tourism in Africa emerged as an industry in response to visitors from the Global North increasingly travelling to destinations such as India or Thailand to receive treatment. Visitors from countries such as Japan, the UK and the United States (US) were uninsured or underinsured. They could not afford the high medical costs in their own countries and were opting for cheaper locations. Many others from these countries wanted to have a procedure done without being wait-listed. Medical tourism therefore filled a niche need for these tourists. Countries in the Global South offered tourists from the Global North a profit-driven, low-cost alternative to receiving quality healthcare.