How the medical-tourism business thrives

IN THE tiny Croatian town of Zabok patients arrive in their thousands each year from across Europe and the Middle East, seeking replacement hips or knees at the St Catherine hospital, which specialises in orthopaedic work. Some come for treatment they cannot get at home, others to escape long waiting-lists for public health care or high prices for private operations. Croatia is one of a number of treatment hotspots in the medical-tourism industry. Babies are made in Barbados, sexes are changed in Bangkok, teeth are replaced in Hungary or Mexico and hair is transplanted in Turkey (see map).

Precise numbers are hard to pin down, partly because of differences between countries in what is counted as medical tourism. Some national statistics include a mere spa visit or a tourist who falls sick. Allied Market Research, a research firm, puts the industry’s value at $61bn in 2016. Keith Pollard, head of LaingBuisson, a health-care research outfit that specialises in medical-tourism data, reckons it is much smaller, at around $10bn-15bn.

Rising numbers of middle-class patients in Asian and African countries mean more people willing to spend if they cannot find what they need at home. And consumers are incentivised to travel by substantial price differences across borders for the same treatment. The average heart-valve replacement...

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