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Medical Tourism ~ Misnomer or Right On?

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Does the phrase “medical tourism” accurately describe the emerging phenomenon of large numbers of people traveling to other countries for medical treatment? Or should the phrase be dropped altogether and exchanged for a more “befitting” term such as global healthcare, international healthcare, or even medical travel?

One popular dictionary defines tourism as: the activity or practice of touring, especially for pleasure. Before getting into semantics however, one could very well argue that the term’s ubiquity on the internet, with the press, and among the public at large necessitates its continued use. Search for the phrase “medical tourism” in Google and you’ll see what I mean. None of the terms mentioned above come even close to its pervasiveness. There are countless websites, blogs and articles that can only be found using the phrase “medical tourism”. Tip: if you are offering or searching for anything related to: traveling-abroad-for-surgery, then stick with the phrase “medical tourism”.

As for definitions, I think we can all agree that surgery is not a pleasure – no matter what the circumstances or dictionary that we use! Nor do we normally conjure up a sun- swept beach and a piña colada when we are about to go under the knife. However, the dynamics do change when we have made a decision to go abroad for surgery or to seek medical treatment. The very act of traveling abroad, for whatever reason, involves being a tourist even if at a very basic level. You will be interacting with a culture different from your own and absorbing new sights and sounds whether you want to or not.

Costa Rica, where I live, is a case in point. As Clinica Biblica Hospital’s international patient coordinator, it is my job to make sure that every aspect of a patient’s trip is carefully arranged. From surgical procedures to lodging and tours, I oversee the international patient’s visit to our hospital, and our country. And I can undoubtedly affirm that in most cases, tours and sightseeing are a very big part of their trip.

Why? Well we’re in Costa Rica! It’s a country about the size of West Virginia where ecotourism is big and there are awe-inspiring volcanoes, soothing hot springs, lush rainforests and idyllic beaches just hours or less away. In other words many of our patients practically beg us to let them out of their recovery hotel to go sightseeing. Room…beautiful country…room…beautiful country.  Hmm, easy decision right?

To be very clear, our patient’s wellbeing and optimal recovery are always priority number one. “Soft” tours and sightseeing are only recommended once the attending physician has provided authorization and safety guidelines. Some surgeries, including most neurosurgery and cardiac procedures, are strictly off limits when it comes to tours. However, many types of procedures and treatments lend themselves to pre or post-operative excursions.

These include cosmetic, dental, bariatric and even orthopedic procedures (Costa Rica’s Poas Volcano, which boasts the second largest crater in the world, provides wheelchair access almost to the edge of the crater itself). In some cases family members will tour or the patient will arrive a few days before their procedure, and we will arrange excursions with a reputable travel agency experienced in the transport and care of patients (touring before a procedure is always recommended). In other instances patients will come with the primary intention of touring but take advantage of our hospital to come in for a comprehensive medical check-up or a dental treatment.

So, to get back to the original question posed by this article: does the phrase medical tourism accurately describe this emerging industry? I think the answer is a qualified yes. Ultimately however, it depends on the individual traveler; the nature of the medical procedure, and the destination itself. In Costa Rica’s particular case, “medical tourism” is a perfect fit. For other destinations it may or may not be so. Whatever term you choose, there is little doubt that the phrase “medical tourism” has stuck and is probably here to stay for the foreseeable future.

A patient coordinator for hospital Clinica Biblica International Department in Costa Rica, Bill Cook oversees operations and customer relationship management initiatives aimed at increasing customer loyalty and satisfaction. Bill also overseas web content and development and marketing strategy for Medical Tours Costa Rica, a locally based medical tourism operator. Bill can be reached at

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