Health Tourism Offers Diverse Benefits but Requires Better Regulation

When we travel to another country for personal reasons, it’s usually about sightseeing, enjoying leisure activities, and soaking up new experiences. Authenticity is emphasized. Even in a globalized, highly networked world, there are some things you can’t get anywhere else but the place of origin.

However, recent decades have seen a rise in health tourism as a motivation for travel. It might seem odd to list medical procedures alongside beaches, exotic cuisine, and other bucket-list attractions.

But the potential benefits of health tourism are intriguing, and as more people start traveling for this purpose, greater awareness of the whole enterprise is needed.

The economy of medical tourism

The most common type of health tourism involves seeking medical care and recuperation in another country. Such medical tourism is actually a centuries-old practice. However, the modern era has seen a shift in the patterns of travel.

Historically, individuals with the means to travel have been ‘imported’ from developing countries, seeking healthcare as an ‘export’ product of the developed world. Since Western nations have long held superior scientific expertise and facilities, early medical tourism was limited to elites in a one-way flow of traffic.

However, globalization and development throughout much of the 20th century have helped to open up this trade. Developing nations like India or Thailand have progressed remarkably in the realm of healthcare. They can export this service at a fraction of the cost in OECD nations, which are now becoming importers of medical tourists.

On the surface, this seems to balance the flow of trade. It may even offset the phenomenon of ‘brain drain,’ specifically in the medical sector.

For many decades, medical professionals from developing countries have migrated to more affluent nations, searching for better fortune and a higher quality of healthcare infrastructure. Now that tourists from wealthy nations are helping to inject money into developing economies, the revenue can help to improve the exporter’s capacity to retain its own talent.

In search of alternatives

Health tourism is most often associated with medical care, but there’s another facet to this industry. Some people travel to foreign lands searching for treatment, but not from practitioners of Western medical science.

What these travelers are after is called wellness tourism. It can cover visiting spas, seeking homeopathic treatments and folk remedies, or purchasing indigenous ingredients used in traditional medicine.

Traditional medicine was the only form of healthcare in any society before the advances in modern medical science. While such practices generally fell out of favor as nations became more progressive, affluent, and educated, many treatments and philosophies have gained mainstream acceptance in recent years.


Countries like China and Korea offer advanced Western medical healthcare and have a history and culture steeped in traditional practices. In Zimbabwe and other African nations, one of the main attractions of wellness tourism is traditional substances purported to enhance fertility or stimulate sexual desire.

Even in the developed world, there are backcountry areas where communities rely on folk healers due to a lack of modern medical facilities. Wellness tourists travel to the Ozarks of Arkansas, for instance, seeking physical and emotional restoration through alternative medicine as much as the mountain views.

The need for regulation

Thus, the dichotomy between Western and traditional medicine is reflected in health tourism. And no matter which method you prefer, you can find a destination with practitioners to accommodate you.

However, the health tourism industry still lacks transparency. Comprehensive data is difficult to obtain because a large portion of trade occurs within the private sector. This is especially true in developing countries, where privately-owned hospitals may offer better services than state-funded ones.

Lack of transparency is often associated with a lack of regulation. In the developed world, you can easily find a formally trained and registered herbalist who practices integrative care. They know to look at your entire picture of health: family and medical history, lifestyle, and diet in addition to the ailments for which you seek treatment.

With folk healers in a foreign land, there are no professional associations or examinations. This doesn’t necessarily undermine their potential efficacy, but the saying ‘buyer beware’ certainly applies.

This isn’t limited to wellness tourism either. Studies in the UK suggest that patients receiving low-cost treatment abroad often come back and experience complications, ultimately falling back on the NHS for support.

The newfound two-way trade in health tourism may indeed provide a boost to newly importing countries and their professionals. Outcomes for exporting nations can be positive. But the industry will have growing pains and ample reason for individuals to be wary while rigorous quality standards and accountability are wanting.

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