A new study conducted by a team of British researchers and led by the University of York has debunked the myths surrounding the popularity and the business of medical tourism.
In an article, to be published in the journal Policy & Politics by Policy Press, the researchers explain that they intended to challenge the idea that greater numbers of patients are now preparing to travel across national borders to receive medical treatment.
Medical tourism is distinct from health tourism, in that medical tourists always intend to pay for treatment of procedures whereas health tourism is when there is not always the intention to pay.
The study questions the common misconceptions in public opinion about medical tourism; that there is a rise in the number of people doing it, that there are huge business opportunities and that somehow governments should be trying to help stimulate the sector with investment in high-tech businesses.
In the article, the authors, who include academics from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Royal Holloway University, and the University of Birmingham, said they looked beyond the UK and the National Health Service and examined how other countries deal with the industry as well.
They found that there was no hard-evidence to back up the assumptions, and it was interested parties that were pushing the idea that there was an increase in numbers and business in medical tourism, parties who could stand to benefit by acting as brokers or facilitators in the business who would act as intermediaries between providers and patients.
Lead author Dr Neil Lunt, from the University of York’s Department of Social Policy and Social Work, said: “In the past decade or so, the global health policy literature and consultancy reports have been awash with speculations about patient mobility, with an emphasis on how ever greater numbers of patients are travelling across national jurisdictions to receive medical treatments.
“Yet authoritative data on numbers and flows of medical tourists between nations and continents is tremendously difficult to identify. What data does exist is generally provided by stakeholders with a vested interest rather than by independent research institutions. What is clear is that there exists no credible authoritative data at the global level, which is why we are urging caution to governments and other decision-makers who see medical tourism as a lucrative source of additional revenue.
“Our message is: be wary of being dazzled by the lure of global health markets, and of chasing markets that do not exist.”
The paper was informed by a research project that was funded by the National Institute for Health Research Health Services and Delivery Research (NIHR HS&DR) Programme. It used findings from a two-year study into the impact of medical tourism on the UK’s health system to enable them to make broader observations which the researchers believe apply to medical tourism globally.
The report argues that a level playing field in the market does not exist and they go on to challenge the role of free, global markets. Other factors affecting the tourism itself can be historic relationships between countries and proximity to areas of good reputation and experience.
Dr Daniel Horsfall, from York’s Department of Social Policy and Social Work, who carried out the statistical analysis for the study, said: “We found that historical flows between different countries and cultural relations account for a great deal of the trade. The destinations of medical tourists are typically based on geo-political factors, such as colonialism and existing trade patterns. For example, you find that medical tourists from the Middle East typically go to Germany and the UK due to existing ties, while Hungary attracts medical tourists from Western Europe owing to its proximity.”