Medical tourism – also called health tourism – is a huge and booming industry spanning the entire globe. In 2020, the value of the global health tourism sector was around US$54 billion, but by 2027 it is expected to almost quadruple in size to US$207 billion.
But what should you expect if you are thinking of becoming a medical tourist yourself? Where are the best places for medical tourism in the world right now? In this article, we’ll go through everything you need to know about medical tourism.
What is medical tourism and what are the best countries for medical tourism?
Medical tourism is as old as time itself. People in ancient societies were known to travel great distances to seek the expertise of physicians and spiritual healers in other parts of the world. In early modern society, patients would make long journeys to spa towns, where they could receive medical treatments in hospitals and recover in peace.
Today, here are many reasons someone might become a medical tourist, from the cost and quality of treatment, to gaining access to treatments that are not widely available in your home country. Medical tourism can combine medical procedures with a holiday, and many are now also choosing to spend their time working abroad as digital nomads.
So, what is medical tourism?
Medical tourism, otherwise known as health tourism, is when people travel for medical treatment to another country. It’s a trend that has been growing rapidly since the COVID-19 pandemic, with the global medical tourism market projected to grow at a rate of 15–25% year-on-year over the next decade.
Medical tourism is often associated with people from lesser-developed countries with poorer health systems travelling to more advanced countries to receive high-quality medical care. Patients may also choose to travel to countries that specialise in the type of treatment they need.
That said, with the cost of healthcare increasing exponentially in recent years, medical tourism has started to become more common for people in developed countries, who travel to less-developed countries to receive low-cost medical treatments.
Indeed, patients from countries that don’t have a universal health system can often save thousands of dollars on medical treatments by travelling abroad, making medical tourism an attractive option for people who are uninsured or underinsured, as well as for those who have reached their insurance coverage limit in their home country.
Many medical tourists now also go in search of elective and cosmetic treatments such as plastic surgery, hair transplants, breast reductions or cosmetic dental procedures. Fertility treatment is also becoming a common reason for people to become medical tourists.
One of the biggest markets for medical tourism is the United States. Due to the high cost of medical treatments in the US, more than 2 million Americans travel abroad for medical tourism every year (accounting for roughly 9% of all medical tourists worldwide). The cost savings speak for themselves – the OECD points out that a heart valve treatment costing US$150,000 in America may only cost US$9,250 in Poland.
In 2019, Patients Without Borders estimated there to have been around 21–26 million cross-border patients worldwide, each spending an average of US$3,500 per visit.
There is now a large and ever-growing number of medical tourism companies around the world. Many provide initial consultations in the patient’s home country before flying them out to a foreign country for treatment.
The patient can often expect to stay in luxurious accommodation while they are undergoing treatment, and some companies will also provide medical professionals from the patient’s country of origin. The price of the patient’s flights and hotel are often included in the price, and the patient may even have an opportunity to enjoy a short holiday while receiving their care.
What are the best countries for medical tourism?
Choosing the right destination for a medical tourism trip will depend on several factors. These include:
Quality of care
According to McKinsey, 40% of people who travel for medical tourism go in search of higher quality treatment than they can find at home. For this reason, medical tourists often look for countries with highly-developed healthcare systems, access to the best quality doctors and medical equipment, and easy access to treatment (for instance, short waiting lists). Different countries may specialise in certain types of treatment, making it hard to say which countries are the definitive ‘best’ for all types of medical tourists.
Naturally, medical tourists tend to choose countries where healthcare is cheaper. Many medical tourists specifically seek private healthcare in foreign countries to guarantee their quality of care, but this will usually incur a cost. Even so, with access to shorter waiting times and higher-quality treatment, many medical tourists consider these costs to be worthwhile, especially when compared to the cost of treatment in their own country.
As a medical tourist, you may end up spending several weeks or even months in a foreign country while you undergo treatment and recovery. For this reason, medical tourists tend to opt for countries that are safe, pleasant and perhaps even offer opportunities for them to work abroad. Medical tourists will often combine their medical treatment with a holiday, leading many to choose tourism hotspots as their medical tourism destinations.
With that said, according to data from the International Medical Travel Journal, these countries rank as the top 10 medical tourism destinations in the world:
Medical tourists per year (2019)
Other countries that ranked highly for medical tourism in 2019 included Russia (200,000 visitors), USA (200,000), Belarus (150,000), Spain (140,000), Poland (100,000) and Germany (100,000).
However, it is important to remember that the most popular countries are not necessarily the best. Different countries offer different standards of healthcare, and may specialise in different types of treatment.
The best places for medical tourism are those that can offer the best treatment for you at the best price.
In a 2011 report on medical tourism, the OECD gave the following figures as an illustration of the price medical tourists could expect to pay for treatment in foreign countries. Notice how certain treatments are especially cheap in some countries.
Cost per treatment (USD$)
Heart valve replacement
Nose job (rhinoplasty)
What’s the difference between medical tourism and travelling for treatment?
Just because you are travelling to another country or region for medical or wellness reasons doesn’t necessarily mean you are taking part in medical tourism.
Medical tourism is defined as travelling to another country specifically for cheaper, more accessible treatment. The majority of medical tourists travel for elective treatments (for instance, plastic surgery or dental work) that are available in their home country, albeit at a higher cost. Some medical tourists also travel to receive higher-quality treatment than they would find in their own country.
‘Travelling for treatment’ is different to medical tourism in the sense that those travelling for treatment are more likely to be referred by doctors in their home country.
For instance, as an expat you may at some point require specialist treatment that is not available in your home country. In these instances, you may be referred by your doctor to a hospital in a different city or region, a different country, or perhaps your home country, in order to undergo this treatment.
This is a common practice, even in highly-developed countries. It is especially common if you are living in a remote area with limited access to hospitals, a small country with limited health facilities such as Andorra, or if you are living in a poorer or less-developed country where access to healthcare is limited.
While it is becoming hard to separate the statistics for the number of people who travel for essential treatment vs. medical tourists, there are several key differences between travelling for treatment and medical tourism:
Travelling for health
How can international health insurance help?
If you are covered by international health insurance, you may be entitled to receive treatment at private medical facilities. This is to ensure you receive the best-quality treatment and care, and so that you are more likely to find medical professionals who speak your native language.
These medical facilities may not always be in the country or region you are living in. In these cases, your insurer may arrange a ‘medical evacuation’ or Medevac for emergency life or limb-threatening medical treatment when it is not available locally.
As an expat or digital nomad with international health insurance, you may also find that your policy covers you not just in one country, but within a much wider ‘area of cover.’ This is to ensure you can receive high-quality medical treatment wherever you move in the world.
Some international health insurance policies offer you worldwide coverage, while others cover specific continents or regions. (Expats in the United States may need special USA-only policies, as the healthcare system is very different there.)
What you should know about travelling abroad for medical care
Undergoing medical treatment is stressful at the best of times. For patients who need to travel to another country for treatment, the stress is likely to be significantly greater.
That’s why it’s important to remember these things when travelling abroad for medical care, whether you are travelling for essential care or for medical tourism:
Bring a spouse or relative
Travelling for any medical procedure can be extremely nerve-wracking, so you will want to have someone you love nearby. Many medical tourism operators are accommodating of guests, and if you are covered by international health insurance your insurance provider will usually cover at least one person to travel with you.
This person can support you while you are recovering, both emotionally and when it comes to running errands – this will be extra-essential when you are recovering in a foreign country.
Choose a reputable operator
If you are travelling abroad for medical tourism, it’s essential to choose a provider with a strong reputation.
These operators are more likely to have access to the best hospitals and medical professionals, and a good track record with plenty of patient testimonials under their belts. They should also be able to find doctors who speak your native language. And they will be responsible for keeping you safe while you are abroad, so it’s important to know their patient duty of care.
If you are covered by international health insurance, you won’t need to worry – your provider will be able to connect you with a medical facility within their own network. At William Russell, we have 40,000 such facilities in our own global network who have helped people get the best possible experience when seeking medical assistance abroad.
Always consult your insurance provider
If you are an expat or digital nomad with international health insurance and considering getting surgery abroad as a medical tourist, it’s important to speak to your insurer.
Undergoing elective treatment in a foreign country, especially if it is one outside your area of cover, may jeopardise your insurance policy. If something goes wrong while you are abroad – either as a result of your treatment or in any other context – you may not be able to make a claim through your insurance provider. If you develop complications while in your area of cover as a result of your treatment abroad, these may also not be covered.
The silver lining is that your insurance provider may be able to help you seek and fund the cost of treatment through your existing policy. That’s why it’s always best to consult your insurer first.
Coverage that travels with you
For expats and digital nomads living abroad, international health insurance can give you total peace of mind when it comes to seeking medical care.
With international health insurance you’ll benefit from our global network of 40,000 private medical facilities, with doctors who speak your language and medical evacuation cover included in case you need life or limb-threatening emergency treatment that is not available locally.
Speak to William Russell today to learn more about how international health insurance could help to access high-quality medical treatment worldwide.