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Why the world needs to embrace health care tourism

Here in the UK, we pride ourselves on our universal health care service, the National Health Service (NHS). Regardless of employment status, age, gender, or where you live in the country, the premise of the NHS is that everybody has a right to free, high-quality health and social care services. 

It didn’t take long for the NHS to become politically weaponized. In the 2016 Brexit vote, now-Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed that we sent the European Union £350 million every week, and plastered that message on a bus that toured the country, calling for a redirection of those funds to bolster a struggling NHS. Although the claim then proved to be fraudulent, many people latched on to migrants from the EU and beyond as a cause for the struggling NHS, regurgitating the classic narrative of people ‘taking services that they had not paid in to’.  

The concept of ‘medical tourism’ then started to become commonplace in the UK. It came attached to the narrative that immigrant communities were coming to the UK purely to seek free medical treatment at the cost of the British taxpayer.

Medical and health care tourism could not be further away from that insinuation. Yes, affordability is one of the main reasons that people travel to access health care services, but those who travel are largely from economically-developed countries or well-off backgrounds. 

Therefore, we need to reframe what medical tourism actually is; the first step is to depoliticize and decolonize it. 

The top ten destinations for medical tourism are all developing nations: India, Turkey, Brazil, and Mexico are all on the list. Singapore is perhaps the only country that stands out as being further along the development scale. In some of these countries, procedures can be 90% cheaper than in nations such as the U.S. 

It is no wonder, then, that those living in countries where health care costs are a burden are looking for alternatives. Alongside surgical or medical procedures, there are growing markets for wellness and alternative medicine tourism and cosmetic tourism.

A growing number of diasporic communities are also returning ‘back home’ to undergo medical treatment. As well as affordability, this could be because of the increasing numbers of reports of discrimination against people of color in the healthcare systems of developed nations. My own father went back to India to fast-track diabetic treatment, and a member of my extended family also went back to India for fertility treatment, which has been discontinued on the NHS.  

Health care tourism is often painted as risky, mostly for the same reasons that developed nations believe that immigrants are leeching on their healthcare systems: racism. 

It is not wrong for doctors to advise that people conduct thorough checks of those who are going to be operating on them, as well as knowing about pre-op and after-care arrangements in advance. Especially in a time when medical procedures are being packaged alongside holidays, it would be foolish not to be informed. 

But to call into question another medical professional’s standards, purely because of where they are from, is essentially racist. My father’s medical scans from India were not accepted by doctors in the UK due to perceived issues with quality. Yet India is currently one of the largest markets for health care tourism, praised for its accessibility, affordability and service quality

Trying to curb health care tourism is only going to backfire. In a globalized, data-driven world, health care already should be accessible to everybody, anytime and anywhere. Eighteen British hospitals were responsible for £42 million of revenue from overseas patients, not to mention the further £219 million that these patients then spent on accommodation, food, and transport in the UK. But no one talks about the positive aspects of medical tourism from migrants.

The UK and such countries who claim to be afraid of the ‘strain’ that medical tourism places on their services should learn from places like Egypt, Jordan, and the UAE, where medical tourism is actively marketed and embraced; they have colonized a market niche. The quality of service, combined with the multitude of languages spoken throughout the region, makes it an attractive option for medical travelers from all over the world. 

It shocks me to my core that health care is still not a universal human right globally, and that it is used and abused to relay political, discriminatory, elitist messages. Healthcare tourism is not only good for the economy, but also for global public health, societal integration, and sharing of knowledge.

Closing off healthcare in line with national boundaries is going to be akin to shooting ourselves in the foot.

By Sharlene Gandhi

Sharlene Gandhi is a technology consultant by day and a freelance writer by night, focusing on sustainability, health & wellness, food and gender / race. She has previously been published on gal-dem, Dazed and the Centre of Feminist Foreign Policy. She finds inspiration in anecdotes and storytelling, and loves the ever-developing form of creative non-fiction.