Israel ranks as one of the world’s best places for foreigners to get medical care, according to an authoritative annual report. The Medical Tourism Index (MTI) ranks Israel highest in a survey of 25 of the most popular destinations for medical tourism for care, services, and best patient experiences and third overall as the best place for non-Israelis to get medical care.
It’s clearly a compliment, but some warn that medical tourists might be taking up beds and care that would otherwise go to Israelis.
Traditionally, “medical tourists” have been residents of less developed countries seeking treatment in the US or Europe that was unavailable in their countries. That has changed — much of the medical tourism “traffic” is now in the opposite direction, from developed countries to places where similar procedures are available more cheaply. The 2013 report of the Medical Tourism Association (MTA) shows that nearly 80% of demand for medical travel is driven by cost savings, and almost 76% of patients who have or would be interested in medical travel are Americans. As many as 1.6 million Americans traveled abroad for medical treatment in 2021, the organization said, reflecting the high cost of health care in the US.
Most went to India and Latin America (Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina) for treatment, but according to the MTI, which is issued every year by the International Healthcare Research Center (IHRC), there are better medical tourism destinations out there. The top overall places for medical care – based on level and quality of care, price, convenience, services, and tourism possibilities — under the assumption being that many patients will combine care with a vacation– were Canada, the UK, Israel, Singapore, and Costa Rica. The rankings included 25 of the most popular medical tourism destinations, based on the number of tourists, how many organizations were involved in arranging tours, the amount of web outreach hospitals and doctors did to potential patients, and other factors.
Most of the roughly 50,000 medical tourists who come to Israel annually are not from the US, rather from Russia and other Eastern European countries, but at least a few thousand are from the US as well. According to medical tourism expert Stuart Katz, many of them come to Israel for orthopedic procedures, where the cost is about half their price in the US. “Of course, patients just can’t get back on a plane when the procedure is over. They need to take a few weeks to rest and recuperate. But even with the cost of a hotel for that period, along with the airfare, patients can still save between 25% and 35% on the cost of equivalent care in the US,” he said.
According to data collected by the Health Ministry, Israel’s total income from medical tourism – including money spent at hospitals, hotels, and other expenses – reached $140 million in 2012. According to the International Medical Travel Journal, Israel’s public hospitals took in NIS 291 million (about $80 million) from medical tourism that year, with NIS 130 million of that going to Sheba Hospital in Ramat Gan, and NIS 108 million taken in by Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem.
“Medical tourism is a very sensitive issue for Israel’s health system. Every medical tourist admitted raises the question of whether that person is taking the place of an Israeli patient, particularly given that the hospitals are very overcrowded and the wait for treatment is long,” the publication said, adding that “no authority in Israel has full data on medical tourism. The Health Ministry has only partial data that includes the state hospitals’ revenue. It does not know how many patients are treated, or in which departments. Many public and private hospitals have refused to provide any revenue figures or numbers (of patients).”