Medical tourism: how is digital tech reshaping the industry?

Medical tourism is a large and growing sector that is being driven by high costs and long waiting times in developed countries. But how is the rise of digital technology and Big Data influencing the development of medical tourism hotspots around the world?

For as long as the concept of healthcare has existed, humans have been willing to travel to access it. From the spas of the ancient Sumerians, Greeks and Romans to the supposed curative properties of alpine and seaside health resorts in early modern Europe, the idea of travelling long distances for health reasons, and marketing particular destinations for that purpose, is certainly nothing new.

Today’s medical tourism market is, for the most part, a by-product of long waiting times for procedures and the high cost of private healthcare in developed countries, spurring demand for travel packages to countries where patients can take advantage of more affordable medical services. For those willing to make the journey, this can mean much faster or cheaper access to healthcare than they would expect in their own countries.

For the top destinations that present the right combination of cost-effectiveness, strong quality standards and top-notch medical technology – Costa Rica, India, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Thailand and Turkey are among the top players – this type of tourism can be a massive boon for the wider tourism market.

The growth of medical tourism

According to international health travel data provider Patients Beyond Borders, the global medical tourism market is worth between $65bn and $87.5bn, and is growing at a yearly rate of 15%-25%, driven by particularly strong inbound patient flows in Mexico, South Asia and Southeast Asia. In-demand medical procedures range from cosmetic surgery and dentistry to cardiovascular procedures and experimental cancer treatments.

For this reason, government health and tourism ministries around the world are increasingly focusing on their attempts to get (or enlarge) their slice of this lucrative pie. In Croatia, tourism officials are increasingly focusing on medical tourists, who make up around 10% of all visitors to the country and who, at a rate of nearly €300 a day, outspend those who are taking non-health-related holidays.

“We see the health tourism as our key product for strengthening our offer and income before and after the packed summer season as health tourists spend more than the summer holiday-makers,” Croatian state tourism board spokesperson Slavija Jacan Obratov told Reuters in November.

In a globalised world, it’s not just top-notch medical professionals, technologies and devices that can set a healthcare tourism destination apart from its rivals. The rise of digital technologies has brought advances in communication, data sharing and security that have the potential to secure and streamline many aspects of the travelling patient’s experience. Below are the major digital tech trends that could help to transform the industry and make medical tourism a more feasible and credible option for patients.

New possibilities with telehealth tech

Telehealth, or the provision of remote healthcare services, is already a booming market and a key concept for medical tourism. As digital technologies have matured, the sector is transitioning away from pre-consultation phone calls and emails between physicians and prospective medical tourists and towards full video consultations, both with patients and physicians in the home country.

Sri Ramakrishna Hospital in Coimbatore, which is aiming to position itself at the heart of medical tourism in southern India, has established a tele-diagnostics and tele-radiology programme using tech from Tata’s Gloheal division, allowing international physicians and patients to request virtual diagnoses and second opinions, helping to reduce risk and costs for those considering travelling for care.

“Remote physician-to-physician consultation enables in-country diagnosis and treatment planning,” wrote Patients Beyond Borders founder and CEO Josef Woodman in a blog for Arab Health Online in 2019. “This remote partnership builds in-country medical capacity and helps patients that do need to travel for a procedure better prepare for treatment and access greater support upon their return home.”

Looking to the future, the steady progress of 5G network deployment is bringing new possibilities in the field of remote surgery. In October, telecoms company Telefonica demonstrated a surgery that took place at Quirónsalud Málaga Hospital with live (and augmented reality-enabled) assistance from a surgeon at Osaka Hospital, thousands of miles away in Japan, facilitated by 5G.

While international remote surgeries will be of limited appeal to destinations that are looking to persuade patients to make the trip and spend money in the local economy, there are new possibilities as 5G continues its global rollout, for example by allowing diverse clinical centres across a country to pool their expertise and offer remote surgeries from a central operating theatre that is convenient to access for patients.

Taking health data mobile

Trust is a key issue in medical tourism – while some patients may be swayed by the possibility of lower costs or an advanced treatment alone, for the most part it’s vital that travelling patients have confidence that the quality of care they receive won’t be second-rate. This is why accreditation that global healthcare facilities match up to the best health systems in the world – primarily through the Joint Commission International standard – plays a central role in the sector. The sharing of patients’ electronic health records (EHRs) with remote physicians, another way of improving patient confidence, is also a core feature of many travel agencies that specialise in medical tourism.

But with the lack of interoperability between different countries’ medical data systems, there has been a longstanding issue with sharing EHRs between countries. This is not only because of technical complexities, but also because source-country health systems may be reluctant to share the data with international rivals.

Netspective CEO Shahid Shah outlined the issue way back in 2015 in an interview with Medical Tourism Review: “Why would a doctor – if you are a patient in the US – help you go to India and take away $50,000 worth of my income that you would otherwise have given to me?”

While global EHR interoperability might still be a blip on the horizon, cloud-based software services can streamline the process of data-sharing to physicians in different countries, especially in combination with modern smartphones. In this sense, the process of ceding ownership of health data to patients – which has progressed to varying degrees around the world – is also tied to this aspect of medical tourism.

“An EMR system deployed in the cloud can make a smartphone a virtual healthcare wallet,” GHIMBA managing partner Agha Ahmed told Healthcare IT Guy. “Patients can access their medical records from a smartphone and share the information with overseas healthcare providers.”