What do we know about medical tourism? A review of the literature with discussion of its implications for the UK National Health Service as an example of a public health care system

J Travel Med. Nov-Dec 2014;21(6):410-7. doi: 10.1111/jtm.12147. Epub 2014 Aug 25.


Background: Medical tourism is a growing phenomenon. This review of the literature maps current knowledge and discusses findings with reference to the UK National Health Service (NHS).

Methods: Databases were systematically searched between September 2011 and March 2012 and 100 papers were selected for review.

Results: The literature shows specific types of tourism depending on treatment, eg, dentistry, cosmetic, or fertility. Patient motivation is complex and while further research is needed, factors beyond cost, including availability and distance, are clearly important. The provision of medical tourism varies. Volume of patient travel, economic cost and benefit were established for 13 countries. It highlights contributions not only to recipient countries' economies but also to a possible growth in health systems' inequities. Evidence suggests that UK patients travel abroad to receive treatment, complications arise and are treated by the NHS, indicating costs from medical travel for originating health systems.

Conclusion: It demonstrates the importance of quality standards and holds lessons as the UK and other EU countries implement the EU Directive on cross-border care. Lifting the private-patient-cap for NHS hospitals increases potential for growth in inbound medical tourism; yet no research exists on this. Research is required on volume, cost, patient motivation, industry, and on long-term health outcomes in medical tourists.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Delivery of Health Care / economics
  • Delivery of Health Care / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Health Care Costs / statistics & numerical data*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Marketing of Health Services / statistics & numerical data
  • Medical Tourism / economics
  • Medical Tourism / statistics & numerical data*
  • Patient Preference / statistics & numerical data*
  • Patient Satisfaction*
  • State Medicine
  • United Kingdom