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Part 2: Main Driver of Cosmetic Medical Tourism: Quality or Cost?

Here we take a look at the main drivers for what is often termed "cosmetic medical tourism," or, in other words, patients traveling to a foreign country with the primary intent of undergoing an elective medical procedure.

cosmetic medical tourism

Based on interviews with providers and patients, the McKinsey report noted in Part 1 divided the medical-travel market into five groups depending on the main motivation for traveling.

While the common assumption is that most people travel to save money on their care, the results do not support this idea.

The largest two groups of patients traveled to take advantage of more advanced technology (40%) or to attain what they perceived to be better-quality care (32%).

The third group (15%) traveled primarily for quicker access to medically necessary procedures, a benefit not particularly applicable to cosmetic care where wait times are relatively short.

Only the last two and by far the smallest groups of patients were motivated primarily by lower cost: those seeking medically necessary procedures (9%) and those seeking discretionary, or elective, procedures (4%).

Only 1 in 8 patients who traveled did so to save money while nearly 3 out of 4 traveled for better technology or higher quality. In fact, those seeking advanced technologies were said to give little attention to the proximity of the destination (which in almost every case was the United States) or to the cost of care.

In contrast, those in the smallest group where the main goal was to save money on discretionary procedures (mainly cosmetic surgery) came mostly from more developed markets but then traveled to small providers rather than to large established hospitals. Many patients visited rural locations in countries with low GDP per capita and a comparatively low attractiveness rating (level of development, safety, transportation, general reputation) where labor costs were low.

Referencing a report on uninsured patients seeking care abroad, McKinsey noted that the threshold for patients traveling from the United States to a foreign country to save money seems to be at least $10,000 in savings, including medical care and travel expenses.

APSG Comment: In contrast to a coronary artery bypass, realizing a savings of $10,000 for less expensive cosmetic operations is very difficult once extra travel expenses and lost wages, etc. are factored into the total cost (which most medical tourists underestimate, as detailed here and here). It is unlikely that many in the discretionary group traveling for the expressed reason of decreasing cost really saved that much money.

Apart from immigrants in the West returning to their old but familiar homeland where remaining local family can provide for shelter and safety, don't count on any substantial exodus of Americans traveling to East Asia for cosmetic surgery anytime soon.

For others living in the United States or even the U.K., there is little obvious justification to travel to the East other than for more obscure Asian cosmetic operations like calf reduction or facial bone slimming and then only for superior surgeon experience.

Much of the reported surge in cosmetic medical tourism in East Asia is related to increased internal demand coming from within East Asia itself or from nearby Oceania, for instance, China to South Korea, Australia to Thailand, and so on.

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: Quality or Cost?