Defining Medical Tourism

I was on vacation with my family on a cruise where there were three port stops, Nassau, St.Marteen, and St.Thomas. Each country has different governments leading them.  Each island had different policies regarding governance, finances, law, and healthcare. I was shocked to hear from the tour guide tell us that at the Princess Margaret public Hospital: children,  the disabled, and the elderly weren’t charged for emergency services. He then quoted a surprisingly low price for Bahaman citizens. Even when foreigners pay the most, it was still cheaper than any hospital stay I had ever heard of.  My mother noticed my jaw on the floor and said offhandedly, “You know people vacation to other countries to get cheaper medical care, right?” Naturally, I had to look it up.

She was right. People voluntarily use their vacation time and money to travel to a foreign country and get a procedure done because it was cheaper than doing it at home. Or, because they wanted to vacation, and get what they wanted to be done in one fell swoop.  So, how does it work? What makes up medical tourism? Does the United States, or even a place like Alabama stand out as a good medical tourist destination?

Defining Medical Tourism

There is not an agreed-upon definition among medical experts and governments. However, the general population defines it as,”The practice of traveling to a tourist destination with the main purpose of receiving some therapeutic treatment”.

According to Patient’s Beyond Borders (PBB), the most popular procedures include cosmetic surgery, weight loss, dentistry, orthopedics, cancer treatments, screenings, and fertility treatment. And, it makes sense. Most of the procedures listed appear to be cosmetic in nature with the exception of people who are either facing a high chance of death anyway or are trying to rid themselves of constant pain. Naturally, that would appeal to anyone need a procedure done. Why not tack on a vacation to your medical leave? However, an interesting destination isn’t enough of a draw for people to seek doctors across the globe. It turns out, there are plenty of reasons why people would opt for medical tourism.

Saving money is a good incentive.  Patients going abroad are likely to save hundreds if not thousands of dollars traveling elsewhere for certain procedures. This is most likely due to the current U.S Insurance market. For example, look at gastric bypass surgery. Current insurance carriers are more apt to call it an “elective procedure” and refuse to cover it to avoid liability. However, in places like Mexico or India, it would be covered by international insurance, and save the patient from $6,000 to $10,000.

Another good incentive is specialization in medical technology. It is no secret that Thailand and Brazil are considered the plastic surgery capitals of the world. But, did you know Iran, China and Poland have responded to the increase in demand for cosmetic surgery? No wonder people like the idea!

The Risky Side of Medical Tourism

Unfortunately, there are no strong global medical standards set in place when it comes to health and safety. There are proposals on how it should be done, and centers created for that purpose, but there is nothing that is strongly enforced by any form of legislation. If travelers don’t research the medical facility they travel to or the hotels they would be staying at, they could run the risk of complications during recovery or even the procedure going wrong.

There is also the risk of falling prey to organ trafficking. According to the GODT legally donated organs met less than 10% of global need as of 2016. With a demand like that, there would be an incentive for a black market for organs to exist. However, the chances of it happening to a tourist are slim to none. They get their supply usually from the poor or prisoners in the local area. Still, you would want to consider your safety when traveling to a clinic out of the country, so it is important you do strong research on where you are getting treatment and to travel with a friend or family member.

Another risk is a possible language and cultural barrier between doctor and patient. Big critics of medical tourism worried that the lack of clear communication would diminish the quality of care for patients. Doctors who went to school in English speaking countries like America or England have an advantage.  Also, in high-end hospitals, interpreters are already hired to translate for patients. You could even hire a personal interpreter if you can afford it. However, if you don’t think you can handle the risk of a cultural or language barrier, maybe you can seek out English speaking countries for treatment.

Alabama Bariatric Surgery, Can it Qualify for Medical Tourism?

So, is Alabama bariatric surgery a possible medical tourist destination? Well, we would have to look at how cheap it is, how advanced the treatment would be, and how attractive of a tourist spot it could be. I will use the cost of a gastric sleeve as a measuring stick.


As of 2015, the average cost of a gastric sleeve runs at an average of $16,500. It is the highest price on the international market with the second highest cost of $12,900 in Turkey. Internationally Alabama Bariatric surgery wouldn’t be competitive enough price wise.  State wise it’s a different story. Alabama bariatric surgery costs lower than the US average at $14,935. While it isn’t the lowest in the US, it is certainly cheaper in comparison to states like New York, where the cost of treatment is at $20,000.

Technology :

Worldwide, the most popular procedure for weight loss surgery is the gastric sleeve at 51% followed by gastric bypass at 26%.  These are the two main procedures that Dr. Suggs at Alabama bariatric surgery performs the most. He has also been open to new forms of weight loss procedures that are meant to be temporary, such as the gastric balloon.


Counselors and Nutritionists are assigned to the patient both pre and post-op. It is also interesting to note that in the state of Alabama, Nutritionists must earn a license and work with a referral from a physician first. Also, there is less of a communication barrier since all states speak English as a primary language.

Tourist Destinations:

There are plenty of things in the local area that people would enjoy seeing or doing. For, starters in Huntsville, there is the Space and Rocket Center. There is also the Von Braun Center, a place that hosts concerts and events all the time. There is even natural beauty that can be enjoyed at local wildlife preservations.


While I do not think Alabama bariatric surgery could be considered an international draw for medical tourism, I do think it stands a chance on a statewide level. I could go on about why people should choose the state of Alabama for their bariatric surgery but really, they only way anyone can be convinced is to call the treatment center themselves and ask questions.