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Part 1: Cosmetic Medical Tourism Numbers Misunderstood

Are you an American cosmetic surgeon worried about losing your patient base to China? Are you a plastic surgery patient in the West who feels cheated by paying higher local prices? Have you found yourself awed by the amazing statistics that characterize the recent phenomenon known as medical tourism?

The numbers are impressive to say to the least. A few of them may even be true.

medical tourism travel

According to a rigorous study undertaken by McKinsey & Company and reported in The McKinsey Quarterly in mid-2008, the worldwide market for inpatient medical travelers was found to comprise only 60,000 to 85,000 inpatients per year, a far cry from the 1.5 to 3 million number circulated by less credible sources with a vested interest in promoting medical tourism.

How can this be?

The McKinsey definition of medical travelers included people whose primary purpose for a trip was to obtain medical treatment in a foreign country and thus excluded recreational tourists who became sick, travelers who indulged in a session or two of medical wellness massage or acupuncture, or expatriates already living within the country. Two-thirds of all international patients who receive care in foreign countries each year fall into these excluded categories.

Further subtract out those travelers seeking a root canal or just a prescription filled by a foreign pharmacy and the pool grows even smaller.

Finally, adjust for those travelers who get counted over and over again on the same trip: once for a shot of Botox, once for a cholesterol blood test, once for a session of teeth whitening, once for a screening chest X-ray, and once more when they purchase a jar of traditional Oriental medical herbs to take home as a gift.

Visitors to South Korea classified as medical tourists in 2009 spent only about $900 each, slightly higher than the average amount spent by a general tourist. In other words, any increase in cost due to significant medical care seems inconsequential.

Outpatient medical travelers not admitted to a medical facility overnight are hard to count because many providers do not collect accurate data in such cases. Procedures performed under local anesthesia (for instance, cosmetic eyelid surgery) were thus more likely to be excluded. The McKinsey study noted, however, that patients seeking discretionary procedures like this represent only a small segment (about 4%) of the total.

APSG Comment: Three points:

(1) While nobody disputes the potential for future growth, the present number of serious international medical travelers out there is far lower (on the order of 90-95% lower) than we have been led to believe.

(2) While there are indeed some patients who leave the United States to seek medical care elsewhere, the inflow of foreign medical travelers is overwhelmingly higher. In the study cited, the country attracting the largest segment of all worldwide medical travelers was the United States (40%). Why? The main driver of medical travel is higher quality and not lower cost, a widely misunderstood truism obscured by intense international marketing efforts.

(3) The bigger and better medical tourism statistics that appear almost daily are neither authenticated nor audited. Despite a global effort at exaggeration, wishful thinking, and competitive self-promotion, most tourists are tourists and not explorers. Not that many actually venture into the great unknown in search of cosmetic surgery.

APSG's Cosmetic Medical Tourism Report
Part 1: Cosmetic Medical Tourism Numbers Misunderstood
Part 2: Main Driver of Cosmetic Medical Tourism: Quality or Cost?
Part 3: Geopolitical Threat to Asian Plastic Surgery Tourism
Part 4: China and Cosmetic Medical Tourism: Not a Player
Part 5: Cosmetic Surgery Tourism Cost Savings: Never Mind
Part 6: Singapore on Myths of Medical Tourism

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Cosmetic medical tourism numbers are misunderstood