The History of Medical Tourism

Long before Americans stepped onto foreign soil for cardiac surgery, a tummy tuck or a dental job, medical travelers from around the world have been searching far and wide to seek the best medical services. One can say that the concept of medical travel is as old as medicine itself. Medical tourism history in fact dates back to ancient times.

The following is a short excerpt into the colorful history of medical tourism. These time lines indicate that if ever healthcare is in short supply - wherever the location or whatever period in time it may be - sick and injured people will travel for healthcare.

Medical Tourism History - Ancient Times

Studies of ancient cultures depict a strong link between religion and healthcare, which dates back thousands of years. Most ancient civilizations recognized the therapeutic effects of mineral thermal springs and sacred temple baths. The following are some of the earliest civilizations.
  • The Sumerians (circa 4000 BC) constructed the earliest known health complexes that were built around hot springs. These healthcare facilities included majestic elevated temples with flowing pools.
  • During the Bronze Age (circa 2000 BC), hill tribes in what is now known presently as St. Moritz, Switzerland recognized the health benefits in drinking and bathing in iron-rich mineral springs. The same bronze drinking cups that they used were found in thermal springs in France and Germany, which could signify health pilgrimages within these cultures.
  • The Ancient Greeks were the first to lay a foundation for a comprehensive medical tourism network. In honor of their god of medicine, Asclepius, the Greeks erected the Asclepia Temples, which became some of the world's first health centers. People from all over, traveled to these temples to seek cures for their ailments.
  • By the year 300 BC, other therapeutic temples flourished under the Greek domain. One facility called the Epidaurus was the most famous and included services like a gymnasium, a snake farm, a dream temple, and thermal baths. Other temple spas included the Sanctuary of Zeus in Olympia and the Temple of Delphi.
  • In India, the history of medical tourism was also slowly unfolding with the popularity of yoga and Ayurvedic medicine. As early as 5000 years ago, constant streams of medical travelers and spiritual students flocked to India to seek the benefits of these alternative-healing methods.
  • When Rome became a global power, several hot-water baths and springs called thermae came into existence and gained popularity among the elite. These baths were not only healthcare facilities, but became commercial and social networking centers for the rich and the elite.

Medical Tourism History - The Middle Ages

With the downfall of the Roman Civilization, Asia continued to be the prime medical tourism destination for healthcare travelers. Temples gave way to hospitals that provide clinical services to travelers seeking healthcare. These institutions are chronicled in medical tourism history.
  • In Medieval Japan, hot mineral springs called onsen became popular throughout the nation due to their healing properties. The warrior clans soon took notice of these springs and began using them to alleviate pain, heal wounds, and recuperate from their battles.
  • Many early Islamic cultures established health care systems that also catered for foreigners. In 1248 AD, the Mansuri Hospital was built in Cairo and became the largest and most advanced hospital in the world of that time. With the capacity to accommodate 8,000 people, this hospital became a healthcare destination for foreigners regardless of race or religion.

History of Medical Tourism - The Renaissance Period

The Renaissance Period of the 14th to 17th century, not only highlighted the rebirth of art and culture in Europe and England, but was also a period where medical tourism flourished.
  • A village known as Ville d'Eaux or Town of Waters, became famous throughout Europe in 1326 when iron-rich hot springs were discovered within the region. Prominent visitors like Peter the Great and Victor Hugo visited these wellness resorts. The word “spa”, derived from the Roman term “salude per aqua” or health through waters, was first used here.
  • During the 16th century, the rich and the elite of Europe rediscovered Roman baths and flocked to tourist towns with spas like St. Mortiz, Ville d'Eaux, Baden Baden, Aachen and Bath in England. Bath or Aquae Sulis enjoyed royal patronage and was famous throughout the known world. It became the center of fashionable wellness and became a playground for the rich and famous.

History of Medical Tourism - The Post-Renaissance Period

Towards the end of the Renaissance period, aristocrats from around Europe continued to swarm to Bath for healing and therapeutic cleansing.
  • In the 1720s, Bath became the first city in England to receive a covered sewage system and was ahead of London for several years. The city also received technological, financial, and social benefits. Roads were paved, streets had lights, hotels, and restaurants were beautified – all because of Medical Tourism.
  • The most noteworthy traveler in the history of Medical Tourism was Michel Eyquem de Montaigne. He was the French inventor of the essay, and was believed to be the father of luxury travel. He helped write the earliest documented spa guide in medical tourism history.
  • The discovery of the New World brought new destinations for European medical travelers. During the 1600s, English and Dutch colonists started building log cabins near mineral springs rich with medicinal properties. During this time, it was noted that the Native Americans in the New World were adept in the healing arts. Knowledge in herbal medicine was exceptional and rivalled those in Europe, Asia or Africa.
  • During the 18th and 19th century, several Europeans and Americans continued to travel to remote areas with spas and health retreats hoping to cure various ailments like tuberculosis.

Medical Tourism History from the 1900s to 1997

During this time, the USA and Europe were not only the commercial and industrial centers, but they were also the center of the healthcare world. Medical travel was limited to the affluent rich who traveled to these countries in order to receive high-end medical services.
  • In 1933, the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) was established and became the umbrella organization for the medical specialist boards in the United States. The ABMS established educational and professional policies, which became the blueprint of standards around the world.
  • In 1958, the European Union of Medical Specialties (UEMS) was formed. The UEMS is made up of different National Medical Associations from member nations of the European Unions.  
  • During the 1960s, India became a destination of choice for pilgrims when the New Age movement began in the USA. The flower child movement, which drew the elite and socialites of America and the UK, eventually developed into a fully-fledged medical tourism industry, with yoga and Ayurvedic medicine rediscovered.
  • With the cost of healthcare rising in the 1980s and 1990s, American patients started considering offshore options, like dental services in Central America. Whilst US doctors were appalled at the idea of seeking healthcare in foreign hospitals during these periods, Cuba started programs luring foreigners for eye surgeries, heart and cosmetic procedures.

History of Medical Tourism from 1997 to 2001

The Asian economic crisis in 1997 and the collapse of Asian currencies prompted government officials in these nations to direct tourism efforts in marketing their countries as premiere destinations for international healthcare. Thailand quickly became the hub for plastic surgery, with fees charged at a fraction of what Western countries could offer.

It was in 1997 that the Joint Commission International was formed to check and investigate international healthcare facilities for conformance to international standards due to the emergence of health providers around the world.

Medical Tourism from 2001 to 2006

After the events of 9/11 and the construction boom in Asia, medical tourism continued its massive growth with as many as 150,000 US Citizens traveling to destinations in Asia and Latin America in 2006. During this time, the dentistry and cosmetic surgery industries reached new heights in these countries.

Thailand, Singapore and India became legitimate medical destinations due to JCI accreditation. Other Southeast Asian and Latin American countries are emerging as healthcare destinations as well with JCI accreditation and partnerships with prominent US-based health providers.

Medical Tourism in 2007 and Beyond

The number of American medical tourists increased to 300,000 in 2007, the largest ever in medical tourism history. This figure is estimated to reach 1.25 million in 2014, as patients continue to pack suitcases and board airplanes for offshore procedures such as face-lifts, bypass surgery or fertility treatments. 

In the last few years, several healthcare and insurance companies in the United States considered medical outsourcing. These offered their members the possibility to get non-emergency procedures and surgeries in other countries. Many are also considering foreign medical procedures as part of a health plan coverage.