The global growth in the flow of patients and health professionals as well as medical technology, capital funding and regulatory regimes across national borders has given rise to new patterns of consumption and production of healthcare services over recent decades. A significant new element of a growing trade in healthcare has involved the movement of patients across borders in the pursuit of medical treatment and health; a phenomenon commonly termed ‘medical tourism‘. Medical tourism occurs when consumers elect to travel across international borders with the intention of receiving some form of medical treatment. This treatment may span the full range of medical services, but most commonly includes dental care, cosmetic surgery, elective surgery, and fertility treatment. There has been a shift towards patients from richer, more developed nations travelling to less developed countries to access health services, largely driven by the low-cost treatments available in the latter and helped by cheap flights and internet sources of information.
The consumption of health care in a foreign land is not a new phenomenon, and developments must be situated within the historical context. Individuals have travelled abroad for health benefits since ancient times, and during the 19th Century in Europe for example there was a fashion for the growing middle-classes to travel to spa towns to “take the waters”, which were believed to have health-enhancing qualities. During the 20th Century, wealthy people from less developed areas of the world travelled to developed nations to access better facilities and highly trained medics. However, the shifts that are currently underway with regard to medical tourism are quantitatively and qualitatively different from earlier forms of health-related travel. The key differences are a reversal of this flow from developed to less developed nations, more regional movements, and the emergence of an “international market” for patients. The key features of the new 21st Century style of medical tourism are summarized below: