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News Article

Medical tourism: beware of the hype

UK researchers highlight ‘three myths’ of medical tourism

The medical tourism industry is one where you often see very high figures quoted for actual or projected market size, with limited hard evidence to support it. While there is undoubtedly a significant industry serving those travelling overseas for medical or dental treatment, or cosmetic surgery, there is also a lot of hype, and some countries presenting themselves as medical tourism destinations may have unrealistic expectations for the potential market while at the same time not fully examining possible effects on basic medical care for local populations. The issues are examined in a paper published online in the journal Policy & Politics by a team of British researchers, led by the University of York and funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). The paper warns that governments and healthcare decision makers across the globe should be wary of the myths and hype surrounding medical tourism.

The authors, who include academics from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Royal Holloway University, and the University of Birmingham, looked beyond the NHS and the UK to address the wider international issues of medical tourism, examining how other countries are addressing this global phenomenon.

They describe three myths of medical tourism: the rise and rise of medical tourism; enormous global market opportunities; and that national governments have a role to play in stimulating the medical tourism sector through high-tech investment.

The researchers say these three widely held assumptions cannot be backed up with hard evidence but are encouraged by interested parties such as associations, healthcare providers, and intermediaries between providers and patients.

Neil Lunt from the University of York explains, "In the past decade the global health policy literature and consultancy reports have been awash with speculations about patient mobility, with an emphasis on how ever greater numbers of patients are travelling across national jurisdictions to receive medical treatments. Yet authoritative data on numbers and flows of medical tourists between nations and continents is tremendously difficult to identify. What data does exist is generally provided by stakeholders with a vested interest rather than by independent research institutions. There exists no credible authoritative data at the global level, which is why we are urging caution to governments and other decision-makers who see medical tourism as a lucrative source of additional revenue. Our message is to be wary of being dazzled by the lure of global health markets, and of chasing markets that do not exist."

The paper was informed by a research project funded by the National Institute for Health Research Health Services and Delivery Research Programme. It uses the findings from a two-year study into the impact of medical tourism on the UK's health system to make broader observations that the researchers believe apply to medical tourism globally.

The report authors argue that in terms of medical tourism, a level playing field does not necessarily exist and they challenge the view of open and global markets. Networks, history and relationships, they say, may explain a great deal about the success of particular destinations.

Daniel Horsfall from The University of York carried out the statistical analysis for the study, "We found that historical flows between different countries and cultural relations account for a great deal of the trade. The destinations of medical tourists are typically based on geo-political factors, such as colonialism and existing trade patterns. For example, you find that medical tourists from the Middle East typically go to Germany and the UK due to existing ties, while Hungary attracts medical tourists from Western Europe owing to its proximity."

The conclusion to the paper suggests that emerging markets may be in dental treatment or wellness rather than high-tech medical interventions, but nevertheless valuable. Activity may not be from 'strangers', but second generation and diaspora populations. Governments need to be more critical when looking a forecasts for market size, share and strategy.

The search "medical tourism" on the Leisure Tourism Database now finds over 200 bibliographic records.


Market size, market share and market strategy: Three myths of medical tourism. Lunt, N.; Hosfall, D.; Smith, R.; Exworthy, M.; Hanefield, J.; Mannion, R. (2013). Policy & Polictics, doi: 10.1332/030557312X655918. Published online, 16 October 2013

Article details

  • Author(s)
  • David Simpson
  • Date
  • 27 November 2013
  • Subject(s)
  • Tourism