For an industry that is estimated to be worth around AUD$60 billion globally each year, it is, however, the case that there are many facets of medical tourism that are not generally understood.
It is only in the last decade or so that there has begun to be serious academic studies of medical travel and what drives it but, generally speaking, not enough is known by the public or media about what motivates people to undertake traveling abroad for medical treatment.
Who counts as a medical tourist?
The terms medical tourist or medical traveler probably require some definition. At Australian Medical Travel, we would classify as an Australian medical tourist a person who leaves this country in order to receive medical care or treatment that they could actually obtain here.
This definition, therefore, excludes those who go abroad to receive medical treatment that they could not otherwise access in Australia, nor expatriates in Australia who are evacuated to their home country for treatment. Likewise, Australians who are on holiday or working abroad and receive emergency medical care in a foreign country should not be considered as medical tourists.
Who is taking advantage of medical tourism?
Research has shown that dental and cosmetic surgery are the primary reasons why Australians travel abroad as medical tourists. This is borne out by our experience as well.
While it is the case that we do facilitate overseas travel for Australian patients for some other procedures, cosmetic surgery, such as breast enhancement, eyelid surgery, and dental implants are the most common medical procedures that we are asked to arrange.
We have a mix of people who come to us to help them to organise plastic surgery abroad. Generally speaking, however, they are ‘regular people’ — your neighbor, your work colleague, your friend.
We have helped people from just about every age group, profession, and background, and there is no common uniting factor apart from the desire to take advantage of the services we are able to provide.
In short, despite the fact that medical tourism is not necessary publicised widely, people from all walks of life have used our services, and it estimated that around 20,000 Australians every year now undertake cosmetic surgery abroad.
The most common medical travel procedure that we facilitate for Australians is breast augmentation surgery. However, eyelid surgery and rhinoplasty (nose surgery) are also in high demand. Increasingly, patients are asking for us to arrange dental implants abroad for them, along with procedures for dental crowns and veneers.
What motivates medical tourists?
Given that we consider a medical tourist to be a patient who goes abroad to have medical treatment that they could get in Australia, what is it that motivates the people with whom we work?
Why do they voluntarily choose to go to another country to undertake a medical procedure that they could quite easily undergo in the place where they live?
Cost is undoubtedly a motivating factor for many people with whom we work. Breast augmentation surgery in Thailand will generally cost around AUD$8,000 less than it would have the same procedure in Australia; upper and lower eyelid surgery could be as much as AUD$10,000 less.
The ability to have the procedure completed quickly and without delay also motivates many of our patients. They often explain to us during our initial consultations that they have been contemplating cosmetic surgery for some time (years, in some cases), and now that they have made up their minds to go ahead they want to do so as quickly as possible.
Ironically, we are often able to facilitate plastic surgery operations in Thailand or Malaysia far faster than it would take to arrange a comparable procedure in Australia.
Combined with speed, it is the overall quality of the experience attracts many of our patients. Hospitals in Asia that are geared up to cater for foreign medical travelers understand the need to provide VIP treatment and facilities if they are to succeed in a competitive marketplace, and so our patients enjoy a standard of accommodation for their recuperation that would likely be beyond their means in Australia.
When recovery is such a crucial part of the success or otherwise of cosmetic or dental surgery, it’s not surprising that so many patients tell us that they want to do so in as much comfort and luxury as they possibly can.
This is also why we frequently facilitate medical tourism for groups of friends who want to undergo their procedures together. Many of our patients have expressed to us that they feel more relaxed and have greater confidence in the procedure if they have a close friend alongside them who is also going through the same experience. This experience of undergoing your surgery along with someone close to you is something that medical travel can offer but which it isn’t easily facilitated in Australia.
It is a perfect mix
It would also appear to be the case that for many Australians the opportunity to take advantage of the ‘tourism’ part of the proposition as much as the ‘medical’ as one of the reasons they opt for cosmetic surgery abroad.
We primarily facilitate cosmetic surgery and dental surgery for Australians in Thailand, Malaysia and India. Many of our patients are motivated by the idea of combining a holiday with their procedure and frequently cite this as one of the main reasons they have elected to have their dental implants or breast enhancement abroad. Although no-one should be encouraged to think that they can have plastic surgery one day and start sightseeing the next, it is nevertheless the case that the opportunity to combine some travel with their procedure prompts significant numbers of our patients.
Our conclusions on the appeal of medical tourism
Ultimately, we have found that while there are no hard and fast rules as to why our patients choose to have dental or cosmetic surgery in Thailand, Malaysia or India, the explanations that we have explored above are the ones that are most often cited — namely the cost, the quality of the experience, and the option to share the experience with a companion in an interesting location have shown themselves in our experience to be the main appeal of medical tourism for Australians.