Budget Squeeze Seen Boosting Medical Tourism

September 30, 2011

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More western Europeans are going abroad for cheaper medical treatment, with France and Germany among the top destinations and cheaper places such as Poland and Bulgaria well-placed to develop medical tourism industries, a report on Friday showed.

A study by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) found that France tops the ranking of global destinations for medical treatment. Germany, Sweden and Belgium are also in the top 10.

With older populations, the "baby-boomer" generation heading towards retirement, and healthcare budgets being squeezed around the world, the report said the flow of medical tourists -- once mainly rich people from developing nations who go to prestigious hospitals in the West -- would shift significantly.

As cost pressures in the healthcare systems of rich countries start to bite, this should play into the hands of developing countries keen to develop a medical tourism industry to boost revenues and develop healthcare expertise.

Medical tourism has long been a feature of healthcare, but it has largely been the preserve of wealthy patients from developing nations who travel to western hospitals to get the best treatment they could buy.

More recently, cross-border travel for fertility treatment, plastic surgery, dental and other treatment has been increasing, bringing with it fears about patient safety.

Scientists said last year that a dangerous "superbug" infection called NDM-1 had been spreading quickly around the world in part because of medical tourism.

The EIU report said important ethical questions were also raised by increasing medical tourism, particularly when it comes to organ transplants.

"The long waiting lists for body parts in many developed countries, and the amount that desperate patients are prepared to pay for a transplant, raise the danger that poorer local people will be coerced into illegal organ donations," it said, adding that international standards should be set.

For developing nations to reap the potential benefits of a growing medical tourism industry, the EIU report said they would need to offer a combination of medical expertise, low costs and a business environment that offers security for patients and private healthcare companies.

The report used data on 60 countries to pinpoint which countries offered the best combination of these factors and found that France came out top, with the United States and Germany also scoring highly on the back of their medical skills and general business environment.

Several of developing countries -- including Mexico, Poland, Bulgaria and India -- came near the top of the rankings by offering a combination of medical expertise and low costs.

The report suggests that these countries are well placed to develop medical tourism industries that will create much-needed healthcare jobs and expertise, as well as generating revenues.

"Many developing countries are building up world-class healthcare facilities at just the time when healthcare cost pressures in the developing world are rising rapidly," the report said. "This is already encouraging a shift in the flow of traffic."