Medical Tourism Is Still Small

by THEO FRANCIS ,  The Wall Street Journal | 2008-05-06

Getting Care Abroad May Be Less Usual Than Once Thought

The number of people traveling the globe for medical treatment likely is far lower than commonly assumed, but there remains potential for huge growth in the industry, according to a study by consulting firm McKinsey & Co.

Just 60,000 to 85,000 patients a year travel to another country expressly for inpatient hospital care each year, according to the study, which is scheduled for release Tuesday. Moreover, most aren't seeking low-cost care in the developing world, the phenomenon that has garnered considerable attention lately. Instead, many of the medical tourists seek the latest treatments available in the U.S. and other industrialized countries.
The consulting firm analyzed the behavior of nearly 50,000 patients using data from unidentified hospitals around the world, as well as government travel records and other information. The researchers also interviewed patients and hospital officials. They estimate the sample amounted to 60% to 80% of the world-wide market.

The figure contrasts sharply with those often used by medical-tourism marketers -- one said Asia attracts 1.3 million medical tourists a year -- and anecdotal accounts. "There's been an enormous amount of hype," said Paul Mango, who heads McKinsey's health-care practice. However, he noted that the report estimates that the eventual market for Americans seeking cheaper care abroad at perhaps 710,000 procedures a year.