Medical Tourism: Vaccinated Against the Recession?

by Lorenza Alessie , | 2009-03-04

A forecast by Deloitte Consulting published in August 2008 projected that medical tourism originating from the US alone could jump by a factor of ten over the next decade.

Reading the economic section of the newspaper has never been more depressing than over the last few months. The news is dominated by headlines of the failing economy with stories about the crumbling financial and real estate industries, the halt of manufacturers' production lines as well as companies announcing yet another wave of job cuts. The tourism industry has not gone untouched. In December 2008 the World Travel Organisation (UNWTO) forecast that in 2009 there would be a decline in international tourism of approximately 0- 2%. Such a decline does not seem that bad when compared to other sectors, however this is the first time since the Second World War that the tourism industry will have negative growth or, at best, flat growth. Whoever claims to be untouched by the recession, whether it be a country, industry sector or company, will be looked upon with scepticism as people think they are either in denial or simply have not yet been directly hit. But is every sector really suffering from the economic turmoil or do recession-proof sectors exist?

The current economic downturn is testing one sector that has long been believed to be recession proof – the health care sector. It seems that even though the residential real estate market has fallen flat, banks are still willing to lend money for medical space development since there continues to be a rise in demand. If you break an arm, for example, seeking treatment is not optional. According to the Association of Executive Search Consultants (AESC), search consultants anticipate that executive job opportunities in the health care industry will increase by 32%.1 This is good news for hoteliers looking for a job, since some hospitals and clinics recruit hotel General Managers to run their operations. For the hotel industry at large, the even better news is that within the health care economy, there is one small sector that is booming: medical tourism.

Medical tourism is a term used to describe the rapidly growing practice of travelling across international borders to obtain health care. Such services include not only short hops to Colombia for a nip and tuck, but also trips for infertility treatment, dental surgery or complex specialised procedures such as joint replacements or cardiac surgeries. To minimise the dangers of travelling soon after the operation or simply to take full advantage of the trip, medical tourist patients often combine their medical trips with vacation time set aside for rest and recovery in the destination country. A number of travel agencies now offer "health care holidays". In South Africa, for example, low-cost plastic surgery can be followed by recuperation on a safari, away from friends or family who might disapprove or stare at post-op wounds or scarring. Nearly every operation is followed by a few days in a nearby luxury resort where the patient can relax, recover, and do some sight seeing.

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