The New Year is filled with hopeful resolutions. Not surprisingly, the most popular are health related, including losing weight and getting in shape. There’s a rising role of wellness in our everyday lifestyle—from the foods we consume to the beauty products we slather on. It’s part of a confluence of trends that is fueling dramatic growth in a sector of travel that has the potential to provide a significant opportunity for the industry—namely, medical tourism.
Estimates vary widely on the size of the market, but Patients Without Borders suggests that it’s a $15 billion business, serving approximately five million people worldwide. Of these, it’s believed that 550,000 Americans traveled outside the U.S. for treatment in 2011. Even better, it anticipates 25–35% growth on an annual basis, worldwide.
Look at the trends driving this phenomenon, and you quickly become a believer. As Patients Without Borders points out, the world’s population is aging and becoming increasingly affluent at rates that surpass the availability of quality healthcare resources. Add in a dose of cost-consciousness brought on by tough economic times, improved medical facilities and lower costs available outside the U.S., and you have the ingredients to drive a major line of business that everyone in travel should be exploring and looking to leverage.
The reality is that people age 65+ represented 12.4% of the U.S. population in 2000, but it’s forecasted to grow to 19% and over 72 million Americans by 2030. Equally significant is that by 2030 over 55 countries are expected to see their 65+ populations grow to be at least 20% of their total. That’s an enormous audience that will be focused on maintaining their health, especially since 20-25% of our lives are expected to be lived in “active retirement.”
As people strive to live healthfully, look good and enhance the quality of their lives, we’ll increasingly see people traveling for cosmetic surgery, dentistry, reproductive/IVF treatments, weight loss surgery, heart bypass surgery, hip or knee replacements and cancer diagnosis and treatment, all of which typically cost less outside the U.S.
A recent study sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) examined the costs of various treatments and found that, in the U.S., a heart valve replacement is $150,000 but just $9,500 in India. And a breast implant costing $6,000 in America is only $2,000 in Thailand.
With such disparities, it’s no wonder a Gallup poll conducted a few years ago showed that up to 29% of Americans would consider traveling to foreign countries to have medical surgeries performed.
Recognizing the potential, countries such as India, Malaysia, Thailand, Hungary, Poland and Korea have made massive investments in this area and even passed government legislation to actively support and promote medical tourism.
Private-sector businesses are also taking advantage. Europe-based NewLifeHotels.com tailors vacations for expectant and new parents. And, patients of Tria Orthopaedic Center in Minneapolis are checking into the nearby Hilton for post-surgery care and recovery in lieu of a conventional hospital bed.
Endeavour Safaris in Cape Town South Africa has put its own spin on serving this market, focusing not on the medical treatment side but, rather, on providing safari experiences for those with medical conditions, including mobility impairment, visual impairment, oxygen needs and even dialysis treatment.
A host of tour operators and other providers has cropped up to serve the planning needs of what promises to be a growing audience. But, so far, medical tourism lacks the presence of major brands (from inside or outside the travel industry) that would bring momentum to the category while adding credibility and building consumer confidence.
No doubt there’s room for innovation in developing, packaging and promoting medical tourism on a local, national and international level.
After all, travel has always promised you the chance to go away and come back a whole new person. Now we can start delivering in a whole new way.