Having been for a while somewhat a niche in the international healthcare industry, medical tourism is a burgeoning business around the globe.
As it is still in its infancy, however, precise data on the sector is yet to be collated. That said, the early signs shown in the industry are certainly promising, as can be evidenced in figures from Patients Beyond Borders.
According to the medical tourism experts, the current market for this branch of healthcare is worth around US$38.5 – 5 billion. It’s an industry that is in line for further growth too, as Patients Beyond Borders predicts the global market to expand at a rate of around 15 to 25 per cent per year, with growth particularly concentrated in Asia.
There is a lot of untapped potential to be explored in medical tourism, but as of yet, Australia is still lagging on an international scale. What exactly does medical tourism entail, and will it ever be viable as an industry Down Under?
What is medical tourism?
The nascent nature of the industry means that exact definitions of medical tourism are still contested, but the general consensus is that it involves the travel of people to other countries for the purpose of undergoing medical procedures.
There are many reasons why someone would wish to go overseas to receive healthcare treatment – but the most widely reported motive, and the one fuelling the global trade, is cost effectiveness. More and more patients are becoming aware that certain medical procedures are far cheaper or better in other nations. In some cases, the treatment required is simply not available in the home country.
One maligned aspect of medical tourism is that a significant proportion of patients travel to engage in services that aren’t of a wholly healthcare nature – namely, to receive surgical procedures.
Nevertheless, it remains important to global healthcare as it gives patients more information and choice as to where they opt to receive certain treatments. And as awareness grows around the world and cross-border travel becomes more affordable, it’s an industry that’s only likely to expand.
Given its promise, how is Australia doing with regards to fostering its local medical tourism industry?
The industry in Australia
Currently, there are large numbers of Australians travelling overseas to undergo medical treatment – but the inbound flow is much, much weaker. The latest indications are that there is still a lot of work to be done before significant progress is made on this trend.
The most recent, large-scale study on the medical tourism industry in Australia was conducted in 2011 by Deloitte Access Economics, on behalf of the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism. The ‘Medical tourism in Australia: A scoping study’ confirmed what many had suspected – that the sector here is “small and scattered”. According to the report, those who came to Australia for medical reasons in 2010 comprised just 0.23 per cent of total visitors to Australia that year.
The study also concluded that a lack of supply is one of the biggest factors holding back the growth of the industry in Australia. Shortages in both hospital bed capacity and skilled healthcare workers, coupled with complex visa application processes and low government support, mean that the industry has failed to progress on par with global competitors.
Steve Hambleton, president of the Australian Medical Association, added that the Australian healthcare system must focus on adequately meeting domestic needs before expanding the medical tourism sector.
“It is entirely appropriate that a first world country should be thinking about exporting expertise just like this, but we have a problem here about training the next generation of doctors for our own domestic needs, and when we have surplus capacity is when we should be looking overseas,” he was quoted as saying in a February 7 2014 article on ABC News.
As a developed nation in conveniently close proximity to Asia, perhaps the largest medical tourism market, the potential is certainly there for Australia – but it must first address the needs of its own residents before exporting its healthcare system to the wider world.
To find out more about the implications of recent changes within the medical tourism industry and the impact on the Australian market, attend Informa’s inaugural Medical Tourism Summit on the 20th and 21st November at the Rendezvous Grand Hotel in Melbourne.