The legal and ethical implications involved in medical tourism

legal and ethical implications involved in medical tourism

The medical tourism industry has experienced a remarkable growth in the last few years. With factors like cost effectiveness, high quality healthcare and a vacation to boot influencing them, many patients decide to go overseas for medical treatment. However, not many are aware of the possible implications of the medical tourism industry, most importantly, the legal and ethical issues involved in the same.

The travel by patients from developed economies to other parts of the other world has resulted in many implications.

  • The travel distance

cramped space of the aircraft

Most experts in developed economies have cast several doubts on the ability of patients to travel long distance post-operative period. For elder people who may have a problem with their body system, sitting for long time in cramped space of the aircraft may result in severe complications such as thrombosis.

  • Relaxation side effects

Experts also argue that side effects of relaxing in the countryside environments in these medical tourism destinations can often result in skin related ailments.

  • Spread of contagious diseases


Patients arriving back from medical tourism destinations carry the risk of transmitting infectious diseases which maybe or may not be rare. For example, China and Mexico have had severe problems with epidemics in the recent past and patients travelling back from these countries run the risk of transmitting the infection to fellow countrymen once they get back.

Apart from this, there are several other legal and ethical issues to be taken into consideration as well.

Legal Issues

strong medical law enforcement

Unfamiliar legal laws in foreign countries remain as the main issue faced by medical tourists overseas. Patients taking treatment abroad always are subjected to risks of an unknown judicial system. Since the laws of the country are mostly unknown, any complications amounting from the service obtained by the patient maybe a cause of concern.

Not all countries have strong medical law enforcement so it can create a problem for medical tourists to file claims. Insurance claims in these countries can also run into several problems as the legal enforcement isn’t strong enough in most cases, to make the hospitals liable for paying compensation in return for damages.

Lack of proper resources would then make it very hard for these tourists to seek compensation for damages in case of an adverse event during treatment. In most cases, the patient would not be able to claim damages at all or only awarded a meager amount as compensation.

One of the main reasons for the low healthcare costs in other countries is their limited nature of litigation. This means that while the healthcare provider in a specific medical tourism destination would be protected from litigation issues, the patient would not have any protection and would need to suffer the damages without any compensation.

Medical liability laws can vary significantly from one country to another, thereby making it very hard for patients to expect the same legal protection they would enjoy in countries like the US or UK. Even if the patient sues the healthcare provider, the matter would be handled in a foreign court with no interference from the courts back home.

Even in the rare case of a patient being awarded compensation in a suit filed against a particular healthcare provider, it would be very possible for the provider to not possess appropriate medical indemnity or insurance cover to pay back the patient.

Ethical Issues 

  • Increasing the disparity in healthcare:

healthcare facilities

Medical tourism has led to the rise of several ethical issues in several medical tourism destinations worldwide. Since it is aimed at attracting foreigners, local masses in developing economies do not get equal access to healthcare facilities. The cost of medical services in these countries is sometimes beyond the reach of local population, resulting in a lack of ethical fairness towards the locals.  For instance, the growth of the medical tourism industry in India has led to the rise of border issues that has increased inequities in the existing healthcare system.

  • Facilitating brain drain

local patients at hospital

Doctors in many medical tourism destinations become increasingly busy with medical tourists that they have little time to tend to local patients. There is also the concern of the private medical tourism sector in many countries being awarded with more incentives at the cost of a weakening local healthcare system, thus violating the needs of local patients

  • Promoting clinically unapproved treatments:

medical procedures that are illegal

Some medical tourism destinations also offer medical procedures that are illegal in the US and the UK. Medical procedures such as stem cell therapies are in most cases, unproven, but still offered in countries like India and Thailand. In such cases, patients opting for the same would be subjected to non -clinical trials and would be likely to be exploited as mere experimental subjects.

  • Posing additional healthcare burden

Plastic Surgeon

Advocates of medical tourism feel that this may bring some relief to the overburdened public healthcare system as experienced by Americans and Brits. But there is another side of the picture. Returning medical travelers may carry home unmanageable infections and complications creating additional healthcare burden.  The ASPS (American Society of Plastic Surgeons) in its official estimate release state that such complications can cost the US healthcare system $1.3 billion every year.


Medical tourism may have its attractive advantages. However, these legal and ethical issues have become quite common in many medical tourism destinations these days. These issues make us wonder – is saving a few bucks worth all these risks?

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