Medical tourism statistics: Comparing apples with apples ....

At Treatment Abroad, we’ve recently completed some research into the medical tourism market for a third party. It’s been an interesting exercise and has really made us question some of the statistics that are quoted (and that often become accepted truth) about the number of medical tourists and the value of the market.

What is a medical tourist?
The first challenge in estimating market size is to be very clear about what a medical tourist actually is. He or she isn’t a tourist. It’s someone whose specific reason for travelling to another country is for medical treatment. It’s not someone who happens to fall ill and requires treatment when they are on holiday/vacation.

Yet many tourism organisations, government bodies, hospitals and clinics classify ailing holidaymakers as medical tourists. They are not.

The data from one destination that we examined claimed vast numbers of medical tourists but in the “small print” acknowledged that the vast majority of these happened to fall ill while visiting the country for other reasons, either business travel or holiday travel.

Another inflationary factor is the expatriate resident. Back in the 1990’s I was involved in the marketing of the Portland Hospital for Women and Children in London. We used to track hospital admissions by nationality of patient. Based on that analysis, the hospital was the biggest medical tourism destination in the world for American medical tourists..... or was it? Of course not. As the only private maternity hospital in London, it attracted a large number of American women whose families were based in or working in London. Did a single American woman fly across the Atlantic specifically to give birth or for gynaecological treatment in London? No, but we could have made it look like plane loads were arriving every month!

Comparing apples with apples
Before the dawn of computing, I studied statistics at college. What I learned about statistics is that you have to compare like with like. You compare apples with apples. But in medical tourism people compare apples with grapes, and oranges with lemons...... Let me explain....

Let’s agree that a medical tourist is someone who travels specifically for treatment in another country, And let’s also agree that medical tourism is a specific segment of the health tourism market which does not include travel to medical spas or wellness resorts or for non-invasive therapy. For the sake of clarity, we’ll exclude dental travel from medical tourism in this instance.

So John Smith jumps on a boat or a plane or a train or into a car and crosses a border into another country and operation or an elective procedure. (Should we include patients who don’t stay overnight? There’s another discussion...).

Are we agreed on what a medical tourist is? Good. John Smith is a medical tourhst. He’s one medical tourist, isn’t he?

Well..... that depends where he goes.

In Country A (or in Hospital A), he counts as one medical tourist.

But in Country B (or Hospital B), he counts as 20 medical tourists. I mad? No.

This is how it works in Country B.

  • John Smith arrives in Country B. He visits the specialist, and the hospital raises an item of service bill for the visit. The hospital records him as one medical tourist treated.
  • The specialist sends him for an X Ray. The hospital raises an item of service bill for the visit. The hospital records him as another medical tourist treated.
  • The specialist sends him for some pre op blood tests. The hospital raises an item of service bill for the visit. The hospital records him as another medical tourist treated.
  • He has the operation. Bingo! Another medical tourist.
  • He collects some medication from the hospital pharmacy. Another medical tourist.
  • He has post op physiotherapy for ten days.... ten medical tourists.
  • And so it goes on.....

John Smith is one medical tourist but according to the hospital records he’s twenty or thirty or maybe even more. And this is good news for the marketing guys in the hospital and at the tourism board. They have some pretty impressive medical tourism statistics.

So, we can see that the medical tourism statistics quoted by some destinations are subject to “statistical error” but not the kind of statistical error I learnt about at college. In some cases this is error on a magnitude of ten fold or twenty fold or even more.

Take medical tourism statistics with a pinch (or sack) of salt
When you hear the latest claim of medical tourism numbers from a hospital or a medical tourism destination, take them with a pinch of salt (or perhaps a sack of salt). And do some basic “hospital” mathematics. If they’re claiming let’s say 200,000 medical tourists a year, ask them where they are putting all the patients.

Let’s put this number into perspective. The Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital in London is the largest specialist orthopaedic hospital in the UK. It’s a very busy and successful hospital. Last year, it admitted around 10,000 patients to its 220 beds. That’s around 45 patients per bed per year. So, 200,000 “real” medical tourists might need....4,400 beds....and hospital beds are hard to find in many countries.

So how do we fix the problem?

When the UK NHS publishes statistics on hospital performance (See Hospital Episode Statistics Online), every set of statistics it publishes has a “responsible statistician”. He’s the one who ensures that they’re comparing apples with apples.

Let’s appoint a “responsible statistician” for medical tourism. Any volunteers out there?