A lengthy article in the most recent Economist takes a detailed look at medical tourism, predicting the number of medical tourist from the US alone could grow tenfold by 2012, creating an industry worth $21 billion (US) a year in just four years' time.
It attributes the growth to a development noted on this blog and in Toronto Star newspaper articles last May, the ability of the middle class to afford what was once the preserve of the wealthy:
Some wealthy patients have always traveled for fancy medical care. Denis Cortese, head of the Mayo Clinic, in rural Minnesota, observes that “we have been global for a hundred years.” A few years ago Britons fed up with waiting for elective surgery started heading overseas to get joints replaced or cosmetic surgery—sometimes at government expense. Recently, shorter queues in the National Health Service and restrictions on reimbursements have undermined this trend.
However, globe-trotting patients only ever occupied a niche. What is getting people excited today is the promise of a boom in mass medical tourism, as a much bigger group of middle-class Americans prepares to take the plunge.
The Economist notes that much of the growth can be attributed to American companies changing their employees health plans to offer overseas surgery as an option, creating a larger customer base. Because getting major surgery can be performed in Asia for a fraction of the cost in the US -- including airfare -- insurance premiums can be slashed if foreign surgery is an option. Employees at Hannaford, a major grocery chain in New England, for example, can save up to $3,000 on their insurance co-payments by agreeing to go overseas if they need surgery.
In Canada, the big incentive to become a medical tourist is the chance to skip waiting lists for orthopedic or cardiac surgery. But like the US, the growth of the industry can be attributed to such options no longer being the preserve of the wealthy.
Today, a new hip or knee can be had in India for about the cost of a family vacation -- opening the industry up to a big new group of people.