Every year, approximately 14 million people around the globe travel overseas for medical treatment, accorting to the Medical Tourism Association.

Medical tourism is still a niche market, often seen as a sub-segment of the larger health and wellness tourism industry, where the purpose of travel is to maintain an individual’s health and wellbeing says Josep Bori, Research Director at Thematics Intelligence. “However, it is growing,” Bori tells Medical Device Network. By 2024, the medical tourism sector is expected to be worth $27.6 million, up from $16.8 million in 2018.

The biggest driver of medical tourism is cost, as consumers are conscious of saving money, a spokesperson for Joint Commission International (JCI), which provides internationally recognised standards, told Medical Device Network. Healthcare costs have been rising steadily in recent years and are expected to grow at a 2.7% compound annual growth rate (CAGR).

Privacy, shorter waiting times, receiving recommendations from friends or family, the opportunity to combine medical care with a favoured vacation destination, and a preference to receive care from a culturally similar provider are other compelling reasons patients opt to travel overseas for medical care, Şebnem Akman Balta, Owner of Medulux Health in Turkey tells Medical Device Network.

The time for AI?

In recent years, seismic events have transformed medical tourism. The industry has suffered a loss of 850 million to 1.1 billion international tourist arrivals and $910 billion to $1.2 trillion from export revenues from tourism during the Covid-19 pandemic, a 2020 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development report on Covid-19 and tourism states.

While socioeconomic factors such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war remain global threats to the growth of medical tourism, the sector is expected to continue to scale in the coming years, according to a Global Data report. AI uptake and its future potential is a leading trend in medical tourism and is expected to contribute to its growth.

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The proliferation of AI in medical tourism has wider benefits for the healthcare industry too. Increasing access to lower-cost medical procedures advances the development of the medical device industry across many markets, the GlobalData report asserts.

Engaging and investing in AI

Medical tourism involves significant amounts of user information uploaded to cloud management systems online. AI technology is also used by medical tourists to arrange trips, removing the need to visit travel agencies to book flights or search for accommodation. “AI assistants and intelligent chatbots have now replaced health consultants allowing travellers to book flights and accommodations and health packages,” says Balta. “AI underpins both advancements in technology and quicker access to services.”

Various AI capabilities extend from foundational ones like machine learning to advanced areas such as computer vision, decision making and motion. These AI capabilities support many healthcare businesses’ processes and functions, such as patient management and scheduling, medical diagnosis, surgery, and other operating theatre processes.

Developing and integrating AI into cloud systems enables social media platforms to track patterns and understand user behaviours better, enabling them to tailor content that appears on each user’s interface rather than demanding proactive user-led engagement. 

By analysing user engagement, practitioners, hospitals, and agencies can use AI to reach prospective patients around the globe by customising content relating to medical tourism and medical procedures to reflect their needs. AI enables targeted advertisements on internet browsers and social media platforms, increasing the number of medical tourists and the possibility of reaching more.  

A 2022 research study states that sectors throughout the travel and tourism industry leverage AI to perform various administrative and customer-related tasks. In medical tourism, AI advancement “plays a key role in supporting the medical agencies in connecting physicians and prospective medical tourists”.

Turkey has emerged as a leading destination for medical tourism. The JCI has accredited more than 45 Turkish hospitals and ranks second worldwide for the number of hospitals receiving JCI accreditation. 

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is considered a leader in AI in medical tourism, regulating its healthcare industry’s development by introducing the first AI policy. In addition, it has created its UAE Artificial Intelligence Strategy and announced the world’s first Minister of State for AI.

Researchers anticipate that AI, a technology of the Industrial Revolution 4.0 era, will progress global healthcare, enabling patients to receive more affordable and accessible medical treatments overseas and reaching readily available health records in a real-time and secure way. However, “the growth of health tourism raises the eyebrows of society from the security, social and economic perspectives,” according to experts.

Future of AI in medical tourism

“AI seems to be the future of the industry”, researchers have said, detailing the technology’s focus on placing consumers at the centre of health and wellbeing and ensuring healthcare professionals see patients’ daily patterns and needs to provide improved guidance, support and feedback.

“As far as AI and technology, particularly telehealth, JCI continues to watch/monitor it closely for impacts on quality and safety,” the spokesperson adds. However, the spokesperson stated that the JCI does not have specific insight or visibility on how AI is used in medical tourism, perhaps highlighting the technology’s nascent and niche role in the current sector.

Exploring the role of data in the medical tourism sector, a 2023 research study found that data related to patients who travel overseas for planned medical care remain limited. AI may provide opportunities for medical tourism healthcare providers if they embrace the return of data to a central registry.

Medical tourism is on the rise. “Thanks to AI technology, it will grow faster in the future,” Balta says. With the help of AI, hospitals and clinics can reach more patients online. Using AI can increase medical tourism providers’ promotion and reachability, leading to faster sector growth.