Fast facts

  • Medical tourism is when a person travels overseas to undergo a medical procedure.
  • There are many possible reasons for having a medical procedure overseas, but the decision requires careful consideration. 
  • If you decide to go to another country for a medical procedure, make sure you have all the angles covered before you set out.

What is medical tourism?

People are increasingly travelling overseas for the purpose of having a medical procedure in another country. This is known as medical tourism. The United Nation's World Tourism Organization estimated that over one billion people travelled around the world for medical procedures in 2013. [1]

1. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. “RACGP - Medical Tourism.” Accessed February 9, 2016.

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Reasons for medical tourism

A person might consider medical tourism for one or more reasons, including:

  • Cheaper costs; 
  • Shorter waiting times; 
  • Better quality of care;
  • The procedure they seek might be illegal in their home country, or; 
  • A particular experimental, complementary, or alternative therapy is not available in their home country.

Although cosmetic surgery or dental surgery are common reasons for medical tourism, people also travel to other countries for major operations such as heart surgery, cancer treatments or fertility procedures.

1. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. “RACGP - Medical Tourism.” Accessed February 9, 2016.

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What to do before you travel

Before you travel to another country for medical care, here are things you should consider:

Decision and information

  • Speak to your doctor at least six weeks before you travel. They can let you know of any risks involved with the medical procedure you are seeking to have and the country you will be travelling to;
  • Make sure you think your decision through, and consult people whose opinions you value. For many people, the decision to seek medical treatment abroad may be influenced by emotional considerations: they may feel they have 'run out of options' in their own country and are getting stressed and frustrated with their situation. Someone else's perspective could help you make a better decision;
  • Much of the information you will find online is provided by commercial companies who promote medical facilities and services. While these companies make it easier for you to find a place you will like, they often have their own interests at heart. They may tend to emphasise the positive aspects of the facilities and procedures they offer, and downplay any risks, problems or disadvantages;
  • Going abroad for a procedure not only adds to the emotional stress that accompanies medical procedure, but can also cut you off from people you care about, people who can provide much comfort and assistance during stressful times, and;
  • Every country hosts a different array of infections. For the medical tourist, this may mean that your immune system is burdened with an extra load at a time when your body is preparing for, undergoing, and recovering from, a medical procedure. Take care to avoid infections during your stay. Also remember that any infections you bring with you can pose a health hazard to people back home.

Communication

  • Know how you will communicate with your doctor in a place where you do not speak the native language. While many people worldwide can speak some English, it is important that you and the people who are treating you understand each other very well. A medical setting is not a good time for misunderstandings to occur;
  • Make sure your medical information is available to those who will be treating you overseas, including doctors and nurses, and; 
  • Prepare a full list of the medications you take, including brand name, ingredients, dosage and name of the manufacturer. 

Legal aspects

  • Check the qualifications of the health provider you will be using during your trip, and the health standards of the facility you will be attending;
  • Get a written agreement from the health provider that describes the treatment, level of care and costs, and;
  • Consider the legal aspects of your visit - what happens legally if things go wrong during the procedure, or at a future date after you have returned home? What are your legal rights as a medical tourist, in the country you are travelling to? Are you adequately insured for any reasonable issues?

Prepare for the time after your procedure

  • Think about what happens after you complete your procedure. When will you be fit to travel back home? Who will take care of you before, during and after your travel home if you experience complications? Will your procedure require follow-up or ongoing treatment? If so, who will you be going to?
  • If needed, arrange follow-up care with your local doctor before you go on your trip;
  • Find out if you will be medically able to do any vacation activities you may be planning after your surgery, such as drinking alcohol, swimming, or going on tours, and;
  • Make sure you leave with full records of your treatment. They form part of your medical history and may affect future decisions about your health.

1. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. “RACGP - Medical Tourism.” Accessed February 9, 2016.

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Risks 

The risks involved with medical tourism depend on the destination and the procedures performed, but in general they can include:

  • Deep vein thrombosis, if you fly too soon after surgery;
  • Exposure to infections if surgical equipment is not properly sterilised;
  • Exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are more common in some countries;
  • Counterfeit or poor-quality medications, and;
  • If you require a blood transfusion, the blood supply may not have been properly screened for infections such as HIV.

 

Globe and stethoscope.Risks involved with medical tourism include exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, communication problems and counterfeit medicines. 

HIV

A virus transmitted mainly by sexual or blood-to-blood contact, that infects cells of the immune system. It is the causative agent of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).

Transfusion

The process of receiving blood or blood components from an external source directly into the bloodstream.

1. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. “RACGP - Medical Tourism.” Accessed February 9, 2016.

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Transplant tourism

Transplant tourism is a type of medical tourism in which people travel in order to receive an organ purchased from a donor who is not related to them.

In many countries this practice is not allowed, because it is associated with organ trafficking and the exploitation of poor and vulnerable people. For example, in many cases people selling a kidney report they have done so for purely financial reasons. In many cases, organ donors are not adequately screened for pre-existing conditions. This means your chance of infection can be high. 

There may also be problems for organ recipients, such as a lack of proper documentation of the procedure, and poor availability of immunosuppressive therapy or of antibiotics (when needed).

Transplant tourism remains a big problem, one that is likely to continue for as long as the demand for organ transplants remains bigger than the supply.

Immunosuppressive therapy

Medications that dampen the responses of the immune system. Often used in organ transplantation to prevent the body from recognising and rejecting the foreign organ via immune responses.

1. The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners. “RACGP - Medical Tourism.” Accessed February 9, 2016.

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