Last year, more than 11 million travellers packed their bags, booked fights and headed off to destinations around the globe, not simply to discover other cultures and try new food, but to undergo medical procedures before recovering poolside or on the beach.
A recent report by Visa and the based global forecasting company Oxford Economics states that this figure is set to grow by almost 25 per cent each year for the next decade as countries compete to entice international health travellers with a roster of treatments as varied as the tourists themselves. United States-based Healthy Travel Media, publisher of Patients Beyond Borders (patientsbeyondborders.com) and a leading resource on medical tourism, has defined the top 10 destinations in the world today.
From heading to Mexico for premium dental work at a fraction of the cost to going under a celebrity surgeon’s knife in Rio de Janeiro, we take a closer look at the destinations making it big in medical tourism.
Known the world over for its love of the beautiful game, Brazil is perhaps almost just as well-known for the body beautiful. As a country bordering on obsession when it comes to looks, it's no surprise that it has the third-highest rate of cosmetic surgery procedures in the world, with only the US and China ranking higher. Medical travellers flock here to take advantage of cheaper cosmetic procedures in a country where plastic surgery is almost the norm. Brazil also ranks highly for affluent tourists seeking the services of celebrity surgeons or much-coveted procedures like the Brazilian butt-lift, made famous by the likes of the Kardashians and widely available in boutique clinics such as La Prath (laprathclinic.com.br).
Scooping the number one slot at the International Medical Travel Journal's awards in September, Malaysia offers some of the best value for money medical treatments in all of South-East Asia. Tourists arrive across the border from Singapore for massive savings, while Middle Eastern travellers feel comfortable visiting, thanks to the country's Muslim culture. Patient comfort is excellent and hospitals offer luxurious rooms more akin to hotel suites than hospital wards, while others, like Prince Court Medical Centre (www.princecourt.com) even have indoor hydrotherapy pools. A dedicated Malaysia Healthcare Travel Council (MHTC) Concierge and Lounge at both Kuala Lumpur and Penang international airports ensure that travellers are well-looked after from the moment their flight touches down in the country.
India is a fusion of amazing architecture, colourful chaos and a rapidly expanding medical tourism industry. Patients can save up to 85 per cent on western healthcare costs and so a growing number of visitors are heading here for low-cost fertility treatments, often combined with a bucket-list visit to the Taj Mahal or another iconic landmark. A number of private hospitals now offer packages for foreign patients that include airport-to-hospital pick-ups, in-room Wi-Fi and private chefs for those who don't want to recover on daal. See www.indiahealthcaretourism.com for more on medical tourism in India.
Renowned for its Thai hospitality and exotic beaches, the "Land of Smiles" is also home to the highest number of internationally accredited hospitals in South-East Asia. With a medical tourism industry that dates back to the '70s, an airport that's well-serviced from around the world and easy visa processes, Thailand draws thousands of health travellers every year. Popular services include dental work, dermatology and cosmetic surgery. The granddaddy hospital is Bumrungrad International (bumrungrad.com) which offers every kind of procedure imaginable to more than 400,000 international patients each year. Many heath-care facilities also offer private recovery gardens, relaxation therapies and Thai massage.
From the balloon-filled skies of Cappadocia to the historic cities of Izmir and Istanbul, Turkey is the crossroads of East and West and a fierce contender among the world's medical tourism rankings. With practically zero waiting times and low-cost treatments across a range of specialities including transplantation, genetic testing and neurosurgery, the country's national carrier (turkishairlines.com) offers discounts to those flying in for medical reasons. Despite unrest, Turkey continues to attract health-seeking tourists who also enjoy complementary offerings at the country's natural thermal spa resorts and mud baths.
Having faced devastating damage in the wake of Tropical Storm Nate last month, Costa Rica's reputation as a medical tourism destination is more important than ever before as the country tries to rebuild its economy. This little Central American haven is packed with waterfalls, volcanoes and idyllic beaches, and ranks high when it comes to healthcare – consistently placed above Canada and the US. Having built a name for itself in terms of cosmetic surgery and dentistry, today it also welcomes patients for cancer treatment, eye surgery and weight-loss procedures. Unique ranch-style recovery retreats such as CheTica Ranch in San Jose (recoverycenterchetica.com) are a major draw for medical tourists, who enjoy all the amenities of a hotel that is staffed by well-trained nurses.
Dazzling visitors with its world-class art and museums, delicious cuisine and vibrant culture, Mexico is a place where ancient Maya ruins wait to be explored and crashing waves roll across up to 45,000 kilometres of subtropical coastline. Having welcomed medical tourists from the US for many years, the country’s ever-improving healthcare landscape now attracts health-seeking visitors from the world over. Popular for dentistry and cosmetic surgery, low-cost treatments offer savings of up to 60 per cent compared with prices in the US and Europe. Quality clinics are located in almost every major Mexican city, with Tijuana being a hotspot for cosmetic procedures.
This island nation boasts volcanic peaks, river valleys and fertile flatlands, access to a host of luxury accommodation and an increasing spectrum of first-class healthcare facilities. Specialising in cardiology, health screening and orthopaedics, there's also a presiding focus on preventative care. National Taiwan University Hospital (ntuh.gov.tw) was the site of Asia's first-ever kidney transplant and the hospital continues to offer pioneering treatments. English-speaking staff are not always widely available but if you can overcome translation problems, expect exemplary customer service and first-class facilities such as at Chang Bing Show Chwan Health Park which has an art gallery, a children's museum and even a movie theatre.
As one of the world's most tech-savvy and scientifically advanced nations, South Korea's inclusion in Patients without Borders' top 10 medical tourism destinations is no surprise. Expect fully digitised hospitals flush with exceptional medical technologies and highly trained staff. Seoul's Wooridul Spine Hospital (wooridul.com) offers state-of-the-art treatments and the latest in minimally invasive spinal surgeries to more than 20,000 patients per year, many of whom come from overseas. Deluxe rooms have spacious bathrooms, a personal computer, two beds so that your travel companion can join you, and a comfortable lounge area. Afterwards, the country's mountainous surroundings and temperate climate are ideal for post-op recovery.
The Lion City draws international patients seeking top quality medical care thanks to its consistent ranking at the top of the World Health Organisation's listings for Asia. Tiny in size, the city-state is easy to get around and since English is Singapore's business language, patients encounter fewer language barriers. Gleneagles Hospital gleneagles.com.sg) is one of the best in the country, employing more than 300 specialists in a luxury, multi-million dollar complex while Farrer Park Hospital (farrerpark.com) has an on-site international desk that takes care of everything from airport transfers and visa services to post-treatment hotel reservations.
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