Medical travel – fact or fiction?

PT Barnum, the American impresario of Barnum & Bailey’s Circus fame, said, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Globally, that’s an annual birthrate of 500,000 (0.5 million) suckers, or ~0.007% of the current world population (7.4 billion according to WHO). Bear with me here, I am going somewhere.

Data or dithering?

True of FalseFacts and data, as one of my clients used to say, is what we trade in. Yet in medical travel, it seems as though some folks assume we’re all suckers. One information “source” claimed that over the next ten years, “…an estimated three to four percent of the world’s population will travel internationally for healthcare and health-related treatment.” This means that, after adjusting for age, over 149 million people will travel to consume medical or healthcare services. But there’s no way to reconcile their claims about the current monetary value ($100 million USD), the number of travelers, and the total global tourism market (1.2 billion in 2016 according to World Bank)! The numbers just don’t make sense. Whether the confusion is deliberate or simply bad reporting, there’s just not enough suckers to keep up with this! We need a significant increase in the sucker birthrate.

With so much hyperbole and (frankly) nonsense swirling around the topics of medical travel and international “medical tourism”, it’s hard to know where to start a reasonable, rational approach to the market. The claim last year that the international medical travel market was worth $439 billion USD, had to be quickly walked back to $100 billion, but not before hearts were set aflutter among economic ministries and banks throughout the developing Truth or Liesworld. “How can we get a piece of that?” And more recently, a report that the Indian medical travel market is worth $8 billion USD was equally without grounding in facts or data.

As a healthcare marketing professional with over 40 years’ experience in the healthcare sector, I have learned to sort the “wheat from the chaff” so to speak. My conclusion is that there are only a few good models to understand the medical travel market, and little reliable or credible data, so that we all should take a deep breath and start deconstructing this phenomenon called (inappropriately, in my opinion) “medical tourism.”

Ask the Right Question

Let’s start by asking the correct behavioral and market-based questions, which my presentation at the Destination Health Summit will address. Surprisingly, there is little scholarly research on how and why individuals choose medical providers, and there is even less research regarding how medical consumers choose providers “at a distance”.

My colleagues and I have created some models for better understanding consumer behavior within these markets, with an eye toward influencing and managing consumer preference and behavior. Please join us!

Irving Stackpole RRT, MEd is the President of Stackpole & Associates, marketing, market research and training firm at He can be reached directly at: