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Sally White finds that more people than ever are travelling abroad for their medical needs

A highly fragmented market, online medical tourism is nonetheless developing strongly in the most unexpected parts of the world. While global figures are hard to find, venture fund group Accel Partners estimate that it could be worth $55 billion with six to 10 million people annually travelling to find medical services.

Latest news includes Dubai’s launch of what it says is the first comprehensive electronic medical tourism portal, Bangkok-based Medical Departures raising $2.5 million to develop its global online booking service and Canadian online travel group Travelucion signing a deal a few days ago to promote Cuban medical tourism online.

Dubai has developed a strong international customer base for its hospitals, helped by the fact that the national Emirates airline flies to over 140 countries. Its 26 hospitals and 1,000 clinics last year saw 638,000 medical tourists it said, of which 47,000 were from outside the region.

“Every year the number goes up by 12-15%,” Dr Laila Al Marzouqi, head of the Dubai Health Authority’s (DHA) medical tourism initiative told a press conference.  The initiative has a target of 500,000 international medical tourists for its medical hub by 2020.

Acknowledging patient nervousness about trusting their vital parts to hospitals around the other side of the world, the DHA has incorporated a Patient Bill of Rights and Patient Protection Plan in its medical packages.

“The medical packages provide for medical insurance to cover any complication or medical liability,” she said.

Global interest

Medical Departures’ funding is interesting in terms of who joined it. Included were giant German publishers, Hubert Burda Media, which is now well established in the wellness and health media markets, in digital publishing, magazines and conferences. Health is a major market in Germany - the most recent figures show the country spending 11.3% of its GDP on healthcare – 2% above the OECD average - partially self-funded and partially state.  Medical Departures offers a range of clinics as far afield as South-east Asia and Latin America.

Travelucion have signed a new deal to promote a wide range of treatments in Cuba to North America. A combination of low cost treatment and post-operative rehabilitation centres make Cuba an attractive location to American and Canadian medical tourists, it says.

Another funding, earlier this year, was a $3.5 million investment from China-based CL Global Healthcare into Medigo, a global booking service.  CL Global was set up to link China with the US health system, and late last year also invested in start-up VoyagerMed, an online marketplace for medical tourism exclusively to US based doctors.

Plenty of other countries are keen to access patients on line. Malaysia is one, and it is not doing badly with the latest annual figures put at 882,000. However, growth has slowed to an annual 1% and, according to international consultants Frost & Sullivan, the country “needs to further develop health care resources, particularly specialists and ancillary health care workers and technical health care skills.”

The government is now aiming to promote its development with three health care hubs - in Penang, Malacca and Johor Bahur as part of its five-year economic development plan.

Thailand remains the dominant medical tourism player in Asia, with around 50% of the regional market, says Frost & Sullivan. Medical tourism could have generated as much as $3 billion in 2015 from income earned by private hospitals listed on the Stock Exchange of Thailand alone, according to Kasikorn Research Centre, a subsidiary of Kasikorn Bank. This represents revenue growth of 15% year-on-year.

Estimate: 1.2 million to 1.4 million Americans are now heading overseas for surgery annually

According to Josef Woodman, CEO of online group Patients Beyond Borders, increasing numbers of people are going abroad for health care. Judging by data from ministries of health and hospitals around the world, he says, 1.2 million to 1.4 million Americans are now heading overseas for surgery annually. And that number has been increasing by an average of 23% per year for the last ten years. He attributes recent rises, in part, to Obamacare making Americans increasingly comfortable with shopping for physicians and insurance plans.

Listed for Americans by the New York Post as the top medical tourism destinations are Mexico, Colombia, Barbados, Hungary, India, Thailand, South Korea, each with their own specialisations. Most costs are at least 50% cheaper than in the US. Not that Americans are the only outbound medical tourists, there are plenty of others avoiding their countries’ expensive or unsafe medical systems. Nigeria is actually banning medical tourism for its nationals, having found their annual spend was $1 billion.

As international consultants PwC commented: Globalisation has radically altered the business model for service and manufacturing industries. Health, traditionally regarded as a local industry, is becoming global as well.

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