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Health Care Consumers Go Global with Medical Tourism

in Healthcare

This week, a 66-year-old British woman made international headlines for her role as the oldest mother-to-be on record. When her wish for a bundle of joy went unfulfilled in the United Kingdom due to her age, she turned to health care providers in Ukraine, where the message of her desire for a baby was received loud and clear.

Medical tourism is big business in an array of countries:

  • Thailand. As the top destination for medical tourism, Thailand treated 1.2 million patients who traveled from other countries for health care services in 2006.
  • Brazil. This nation has become a hotspot for medical treatment, especially cosmetic surgeries – its market for plastic surgery is one of the largest in the world.
  • Malaysia. Medical tourists seek a wide variety of medical procedures in Malaysia, including cardiac, dental and plastic surgeries. The Association of Private Hospitals in Malaysia reports US$59 million in revenue from foreigners seeking healthcare services in 2006.
  • India. Looking for lower-cost cardiac and orthopedic procedures, half a million foreign patients visited India in 2005 to obtain health care services. The country is predicted to rake in US$2.2 billion in annual revenue from medical tourism by 2012.
  • Panama. Per the National Center for Policy Analysis, costs of surgeries in Panama are 40 to 70 percent lower than in the United States.
  • Poland. The country is one of the world’s most popular destinations for “dental holidays,” especially for patients from the UK, since the cost of dental work there can be as little as 40 percent of the prices in Britain.

More and more nations are getting in on the medical tourism game, competing largely for British pounds and American dollars– these two nations produce the largest numbers of medical-procedure-seeking globetrotters. But what’s all this got to do with language?

Quite a lot, actually. Medical jargon in one’s native tongue can be confusing enough for the average person. Traveling to another country — one where both the culture and local language are unfamiliar — can present communication challenges for many patients. Here are some of the ways in which the booming medical tourism industry may affect the language services market:

  • Language testing. Patients will want assurance that providers can speak with them in their native languages. Facilities that can prove their staff are highly skilled in other languages — for example, holding a “superior” level rating on a language proficiency test — will have an edge over competitors.
  • Interpreting services. Health care staff that do not share a common language with patients may rely on interpreting services — in person, via video, and over the phone. Companies such as CallUma and Language Line already offer telephone interpreting services specifically for consumers. Meanwhile, video interpreting is becoming more common at health care facilities in places like Thailand.
  • Written translations. Patients and clinicians will need translated copies of medical records, results from diagnostic tests, lab results, discharge instructions, and other documents — both for purposes of preventing complications for the overseas procedures, and for relaying this critical information to primary care providers back home.

The only problem? Most language services providers are geared more toward the needs of corporate buyers than to the needs of individuals, so it’s doubtful that they will be clamoring to launch business-to-consumer marketing campaigns anytime soon.

Instead, we predict that savvy medical facilities across the globe will seek to differentiate themselves by boosting the diversity and quality of language services they make available to their prospective patients. After all, the potential for confusion even between monolingual medical terms — such as aphagia/aphasia, pleuritis/pruritus, and vesical/vesicle — is one that poses risk. An investment in language services may just be a welcome antidote.

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