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Defining Medical Tourism or Not?


Many people have tried to define and re-define Medical Tourism, and some have even gone to extremes to create new words to define the industry of patients traveling from one country to another for medical care. Many of these new definitions or attempts to change terminology came about a year ago when a few in the industry felt “tourism” should never be associated with “medicine.” Some even, incorrectly went so far as to say people traveling for medicine won’t engage in tourism.

Since, then we have seen a major shift away from trying to redefine or change what we call this industry. Most hospitals, insurance companies, employers, facilitators, doctors and the media have not only accepted the term Medical Tourism, many have embraced it.

Rather than discussing what Medical Tourism is, why don’t we discuss what it is not by looking at some of the terminology others have tried to use to define this industry.

Globalization of Healthcare or Global Health/ Global Healthcare

The Globalization of Healthcare or Global Healthcare has so many definitions it is difficult to remember them all, let alone list them here. First of all, this term has little or nothing to do with Medical Tourism, and Medical Tourism is actually a side effect or after effect to the Globalization of Healthcare.

The Globalization of Healthcare refers to the following:

  • Developed countries outsourcing medical claims payment overseas to countries like India.
  • Technicians in countries like India reviewing X-rays and Diagnostic Imaging for Doctors in the USA and UK.
  • Customer Service Operations for Insurance Companies in developing countries.
  • Developing countries increasing their exchange of technology and information technology.
  • Developing countries investing in medical infrastructure such as building hospitals and obtaining modern medical equipment.
  • Developing countries providing more advanced healthcare and medicine and drugs to their population.
  • Countries recruiting doctors and nurses from other countries due to their experience. Basically, more developed countries attracting nurses and doctors from developing countries because they have the same education and experience as developed countries.

Clearly Medical Tourism is the after effect/side effect of Globalization of Healthcare, which means that because Developing countries now have advanced medicine and high quality medical infrastructure, patients are traveling from their own country to other countries for medical care.

Foreign Doctor reading x-rays to assist physician in another country.

Global Health or Global Healthcare

These are terms we should really stay away from. If you search Google, or receive “Google Alerts,” you will see that Global Health and Global Healthcare mainly focus on other issues. For example, “Global Healthcare” refers to physician and nurse staffing internationally, recruitment, staffing and replacement of healthcare providers internationally and international regulation of healthcare products.

A search of “Global Health” reveals page after page of information about issues affecting the health of patients worldwide. You will find data on HIV/Aids, malaria, natural epidemics such as global warming, child’s health, women’s health, infectious diseases, and even hunger issues.

Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, has a non profit organization called the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation dedicated to Global Health/Healthcare issues. It is one of the most famous Global Health organizations. After you review their website, I am sure you will agree that Global Health and Global Healthcare clearly are not medical tourism and have nothing to do with the industry or terminology.

Medical Travel

Medical Travel has many different definitions. The first definition, for which it is commonly known, is doctors and nurses traveling to other countries on volunteer or missionary work in developing countries.

Some define Medical Travel as the industry of mobility medical equipment for those patients that are disabled. Medical Travel includes electronic wheelchairs and scooters.

Emergency Medical Travel ~ Medical Evacuation

One of the biggest definitions of Medical Tourism is the large industry of Medical Evacuation, where patients are evacuated from one country to another by air ambulance, which could be a helicopter or airplane. The reasons for this emergency “medical travel” could be due to a severely injured tourist in a foreign country requiring evacuation home or to a country nearby where high quality trauma care is available.

It may also include a patient in a developing country with a serious health condition or trauma requiring higher levels of care than can be found in their own country. Medical travel provides that patient with life saving opportunities.

Let’s Focus on the Real Issues

When we use the term Medical Tourism, do we have any of the confusion that the above words create? When someone mentions the term Medical Tourism, one immediately thinks of patients traveling to another country for more affordable care, or care that is higher quality and more accessible. I think we can all agree that the terms described above do not apply to this industry.

More importantly, rather than spending time attempting to re-define an industry or change terminology, why don’t we focus on the important issues, such as Quality of Care, Patient Safety, Aftercare and Legal Issues. The industry for the first time is working together through the Medical Tourism Association to focus on creating higher quality of outcomes for medical tourists, putting together national accreditation initiatives and establishing strong protocols for maintaining high quality of care while increasing patient flow.

How about the US marketplace? The American Medical Association recently released its “Guidelines on Medical Tourism.” The US Senate Committee on the Aging held hearings on the issue of medical tourism in 2006. The American Society for Plastic Surgeons, International Society of American Plastic Surgeons, American Dental Association, American Cancer Association, and the American Association for Multiple Sclerosis all have voiced their positions on medical tourism. Many of these positions will be shared at the upcoming World Medical Tourism Congress in San Francisco, California on September 9-12, 2008.

The search term most commonly used on the internet is “medical tourism.” The fact is, patients know it as Medical Tourism as do employers and insurers. Whether they Google it or look for it online, this is what they come up with. Almost every single Tourism Board in the world is referring to this industry as Medical Tourism, setting budgets and agendas accordingly to promote it. Hospitals and the media call it Medical Tourism.

What is tourism anyway? Patients are eager to travel to a foreign country to engage in some form of tourism activity. Whether it is indulging in local food, sightseeing, or just having coffee or tea at a local café, for some people, just leaving their hometown is an adventure that is only accomplished through vacation. Getting on a plane may be deemed touristy for these people.

Someone recently told me that patients getting a knee replacement or hip replacement won’t be sipping a soft drink by the pool of their hotel in a foreign country. Are you kidding? This is exactly what they do once they become ambulatory and it is crazy to think that they will not take advantage of the personal service found overseas.

As an example, the short segment from our documentary found on our website shows an American going for a double knee replacement in Costa Rica. The day after he arrived and the day before his surgery, he was in the rain forest doing an aerial tram tour. If that isn’t medical tourism, I don’t know what is.

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