A McKinsey Survey
The idea of travelling around the world for medical treatment has captured much attention and imagination. As the debate on health care reform heats up in the US, few weeks go by without a story about an under- or uninsured patient going to India or Thailand for heart surgery or hip replacement. Although medical travellers have many motives, lower-cost procedures and discretionary cosmetic operations represent only small segments. Most of these people seek the world’s most advanced technology, better quality, or quicker access to medical care.
To create a rigorous and credible fact base about the nascent medical travel market, McKinsey studied more than 20 medical travel destinations; analysed primary data on the number, type and origin of medical travellers; and conducted interviews with providers, patients, and intermediaries in 20 countries. We place the current market at 60,000 to 85,000 inpatient medical travellers a year—numbers far smaller than others have reported.
These smaller numbers hinge in part on our strict definition of medical travellers: people whose primary and explicit purpose in travelling is medical treatment in a foreign country. We excluded from our study patients who receive care on an emergency basis (such as ordinary tourists who become sick), “wellness tourists” (for example, people travelling for massages or acupuncture), and expatriates seeking care in their country of residence. We also excluded patients who travel in largely contiguous geographies to the closest available care, for they don’t consider other medical travel destinations and the financial burden is minimal.
Our examination of the motives and behaviour of these patients reveals that this market has great potential for growth, though current volumes are modest. The benefits to providers attracting international patients are big—in addition to filling beds and increasing revenues per bed, such patients may boost an institution’s domestic prestige. But fewer than half of the international inpatients at the providers we visited were true medical travellers. Furthermore, several global forces and a number of important structural barriers may prevent or inhibit the market’s growth.
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