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The history, evolution and future of medical tourism

Traveling to achieve wellness is as old as the civilization itself


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Modern medical tourism can find its roots as far as ancient history, across all continents. Even before the ancient Greeks started building shrines to Asclepius (Greek god of medicine) there was evidence of various hill tribes in modern day Switzerland traveling to present-day German and French lands to visit the iron-rich hot springs which they believed to have healing powers.

When the ancient Greeks started building shrines, they were considered the first medical centers and people from all over the ancient world would travel to find a cure for their ailments. The primary destinations for medical tourism in the West were the hot springs and Greek medical centers. In the East, however, yoga and Ayurvedic medicine had just come into existence and drew attention, in the west, viewed as alternative healing methods.

During the Renaissance, Europeans discovered the healing powers of hot springs again, which sparked another wave of traveling throughout the continent. As we see, thermal springs, wellness and herbal solutions like Ayurveda are still highly sought after today.

With the advent of the Industrial Revolution, new technology translated into innovations in the medical field. At the beginning of the 20th century, people traveled from all over the world to the United States to receive cutting edge medical care.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, the focus on the medical tourism industry was to get more organized, more interconnected. The beginning of this century saw the medical improvements in nations such as India, Thailand, Singapore, Mexico, Costa Rica, Poland and Czech Republic. The regions of Far East Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe focused on bringing in the patients from the West, as they could now provide the same quality of treatments and procedures at significantly lower prices. Combined with ever-cheaper traveling costs, those regions are now interesting to people who seek their cures outside their own borders.

Current trends in medical tourism

Depending on a patient’s nation of origin country, the reasons to travel are different. Those who travel from the so called ‘developed’ world to the ‘developing’ countries may do so because the prices are lower than in their home countries, while the technology is still viable.

However, the opposite can also be true. People may travel to the developed world because there isn’t a particular treatment in their own country, or the treatment they can receive elsewhere is better than the one they would receive at home.

Some countries, like Thailand, have practices which are not really culturally or legally allowed in others. Patients mostly travel to the ‘developing’ world for dental care and cosmetic surgeries, to the ‘developed’ countries for cancer treatments and stem cells, while they travel to Thailand and Turkey for plastic/cosmetic surgery, which includes sex change.

What makes us think that medical tourism is the future?

Dental care is probably the best example of ‘developed’ to ‘developing’ countries model of medical tourism. In already-developed countries, the cost of repairing and caring for teeth is high. This has forced many people to look for dental care in less-developed countries. Western Europeans look to Eastern Europe, while people from the U.S. may go to Mexico to get their teeth fixed. For example, four dental implants would cost around $15,000 in the U.S., less than half that in Latin America. This more than makes up for the cost of travel and stay in those countries.

Cuba provides another example for medical tourism. Due to their advancements in medicine – one of the primary focuses of their government – the community now has treatments for diseases that were previously thought to be incurable, like the diabetic foot or even lung cancer. Since the Cuban government is under sanctions, none of their medical advances can be applied anywhere else, which makes them the only country to offer these treatments to the world.

As we could see, traveling for wellness is as old as civilization itself.

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Les Simpson

Les Simpson is the CEO of Premier Medical Travel Inc., connecting more than 1,000 doctors – locally and worldwide. Based in Denver, He works to make health care affordable while increasing choices and cost savings for businesses. Contact Les at 303-579-6881 or les@premiermedicaltravel.com or connect with him on LinkedIn.

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