Citizens of wealthy countries staggered by rising domestic medical costs are increasingly turning overseas for treatments which could cost tens of thousands of dollars at home, ranging from cosmetic surgery to expensive and complex life-saving procedures such as heart and liver transplants. The global “medical tourism” market is estimated to now be worth $38.5-$55 billion annually, based on approximately eleven million cross-border patients worldwide spending an average of $3,500-5,000 per visit. Over the past several years medical tourism has been growing annually by an estimated 20-25 percent. The most popular current destinations for medical tourism are Costa Rica, India, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey and the United States.
The top procedures for overseas medical tourism are: cosmetic surgery, dentistry (general, restorative, cosmetic), cardiovascular (angioplasty, CABG, transplants), organ transplants, orthopedics (joint and spine; sports medicine), cancer (often high-acuity or last resort), reproductive (fertility, IVF, women’s health), weight loss (LAP-BAND, gastric bypass), scans, tests, health screenings and second opinions. In a measure of the rising scale of medical tourism, representatives from 79 nations are scheduled to attend the International Medical Travel Exhibition & Conference (IMTEC), to be held Oct. 7-8 in the Dubai International Convention & Exhibition Center in the United Arab Emirates.
Kazakhstan has now entered the medical tourism field. The practice is a national priority, as during his Jan. 21 2014 State of the Nation address President Nursultan Nazarbayev declared, “Kazakhstan will become one of the leading Eurasian centers of medical tourism.”
Momentum to promote Kazakhstan as a medical tourism site has been slowly building for years; the largest tourism exhibition in Central Asia – KITF 2011, held on April 20-22, 2011 in Almaty, and featured a Medical Tourism section. Seeking to learn from nations already established in the field, on Aug. 14, 2011 the Jordanian Minister of Health Abdul Latif Wriekat discussed with the Kazakh ambassador Bulat Sarsenbayev ways to boost cooperation between Jordan and Kazakhstan in areas of pharmaceuticals and medical tourism, as Jordan’s medical tourism generated $1 billion annually. Two years earlier, according to Private Hospitals Association (PHA) President Fawzi Hammouri, Jordan was ranked number one in the Arab world and among the top 10 in the world as a medical tourism destination by World Bank’s medical tourism specialists.
As for cost reduction, while Patients Beyond Borders has yet to break down Kazakh medical costs in comparison to other nations, it lists the price reductions for similar procedures across a variety of specialties and procedures as compared to the U.S. as: Brazil – 20-30 percent, Costa Rica – 45-65 percent, India – 65-90 percent, Malaysia – 65-80 percent, Mexico – 40-65 percent, Singapore – 25-40 percent, South Korea – 30-45 percent, Taiwan – 40-55 percent, Thailand – 50-75 percent and Turkey – 50-65 percent. As for Kazakhstan, a liver transplant that costs $300,000 in America costs roughly $100,000 in Turkey, but in Kazakhstan – about $20,000. Other Kazakh medical procedure bargains include bone marrow transplants at $51,000 and kidney transplants at $16,000.
Furthermore, a scholarship program in operation for more than two decades has been sending back to Kazakhstan highly trained medical professionals. The Bolashak presidential scholarship program, introduced in November 1993, has been awarded to 10,363 Kazakhs, who used it to study abroad in the world’s top universities, with many studying medicine. At the Going Global International Conference held in Miami in 2014, Bolashak was cited as the best scholarship program in the world, providing full tuition and living expenses for undergraduate, post graduate and postdoctoral degrees. The returning Bolashak scholars have enriched many fields in Kazakhstan, including science, the civil service, engineering and medicine. In 2011 the bachelor’s program was ended, as the Bolashak scholarships refocused on postgraduate degrees.
According to Ministry of Health and Social Development Medical Aid Management Department Director Gulnar Kulkayeva, subsidiaries of the country’s public-private National Medical Holding have seen a rise in patients from the United States, Japan and Italy, she said, whereas foreign patients previously only came from Russia and Kyrgyzstan, with 832 foreign nationals treated in National Medical Holding clinics in 2013. According to the ministry British patients accounted for the largest number at 260 the U.S. followed with 111, Kyrgyzstan – 51, Turkey – 50, Russia – 44, with other patients coming from Bulgaria, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and 23 other nations.
In the United States medical tourism has been steadily increasing and with the introduction of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the number of American patients traveling to foreign destinations for medical procedures is predicted to surge. In 2013, around 900,000 Americans traveled overseas for treatment, according to Patients Beyond Borders, and an estimated 1,200,000 in 2014. Accordingly, it is likely that the percentage of American traveling to Kazakhstan for medical care in the future is certain to grow.
And not all foreigners interested in medicine travel to Kazakhstan for treatment. According to Almaty’s Kazakh National Medical University named after Sanzhar Asfendiyarov Dean Aikan Akanov, the number of international students studying in Kazakhstan’s medical universities is approaching 5 percent, but the number will grow rapidly because the international demand for Kazakhstan’s medical education among foreigners already greatly exceeds supply. According to Akanov, Almaty’s Kazakh National Medical University alone has students from 17 different countries are already studying there. Akanov added, “There are approximately 600-700 foreigners among the total of 11,000 students in that university (Kazakhstan National Medical University). This is around 5-6 percent. The percentage is more or less the same throughout the country. The average number of foreign students is 3 to 5 percent. In the near future, I believe, it may reach 10 percent. The demand for medical education is high among students from South East Asia, but we don’t have the facilities and resources to admit more students.”
While Kazakhs themselves are the first beneficiaries of their government’s farsighted decisions more than two decades ago to send their best and brightest young medical students worldwide overseas for training, the future will see increasing numbers of ill foreigners unable to afford high medical costs in their own countries making their way to Kazakhstan for vital and affordable treatment, a development that more affluent governments forcing their less affluent citizens into medical “tourism” might do well to ponder.