Joanne Bladd ,
For all its press, medical tourism is still an unmapped market. Two hotly anticipated reports, released by data giants McKinsey and Deloitte earlier this year, gave starkly different pictures of the industry.
McKinsey pinpointed between 60,000 to 85,000 health tourists globally per year.
Tourism is a means to a full, robust health system for the entire population.Deloitte's report, released three days later, claimed 750,000 from the US alone in 2007; a number, says Josef Woodman, author of Patients Without Borders, as spectacularly overhyped as McKinsey's is underplayed.
Still, talk of a boom has whetted the appetites of governments, with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) the latest country to hitch its wagon to the trend.
Dubai has led the charge, with the city-state's tourism authority predicting the UAE will receive 11.2 million medical tourists by 2010, largely through Dubai Health Care City (DHCC).
But for a country where most medical tourism is outbound - government figures show US$2 billion is spent annually sending nationals abroad for care - it could be an uphill struggle to turn the flow around.
Trick or trend
One of the greatest myths about medical tourism is its popularity. Though the hype suggests otherwise, globetrotting patients still occupy a niche.
Woodman's research shows two to three million health tourists travel globally each year: a trickle when compared to overall healthcare figures.
Another illusion is that a portion of those patients are targeting the UAE. Despite fevered promotion of DHCC, numbers on the ground are low. The country's biggest brand names, including Moorfields Eye Hospital Dubai, are reporting tens rather than hundreds of health tourists.
And all from the Middle East region, rather than the juicier health markets of America and Europe.