IAMAT |International Association of Medical Assistance to Travellers| IAMAT |International Association of Medical Assistance to Travellers|
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How to know travel medicine from medical travel

Medical travel and travel medicine. Chances are you’ve heard these terms before. Although they sound similar, they are actually different fields of medicine. But what exactly are medical travel and travel medicine?

Medical travel vs. travel medicine

Medical travel (also known as medical tourism, global healthcare, and health tourism), involves patients who seek health care abroad for a variety of reasons, including the high cost of medical treatments and long waiting times back home, their insurance plans do not cover certain procedures, or they want quick access to cutting-edge medical technology available in other countries.

Normally encompassing elective procedures such as cosmetic surgery, dental surgery, fertility or alternative medicine treatments, medical travel is also popular with patients requiring life-saving procedures like heart or kidney transplants, as well as knee or hip replacements. Often, patients combine their medical care with vacation time, usually in warm-climate destinations.

Travel medicine (also known as travel health) on the other hand, focuses on preventing injuries and the spread of infectious diseases during international travel. This specialty touches on several medical disciplines including preventive medicine, emergency care, immunology, epidemiology, psychology, gastroenterology, and dermatology. A travel health practitioner is also knowledgeable of world geography, the health environment, and the socio-cultural customs of the traveller's destination.

Travel medicine includes:
  • The individual traveller: Your age, current health status, underlying chronic health conditions, and budget for medications and vaccinations.
  • The risks: Your destination, itinerary, visits to rural or remote areas, type of travel (study abroad, business, adventure, leisure, international assignment, visiting friends and relatives), epidemics, and general health of the population where you will be visiting.
  • The intervention: Vaccination and medication recommendations, general health advice, including food and water safety, and insect-bite prevention methods.

It’s not all about infectious diseases. Travel medicine also encompasses mental health, air pollution, animal bites, travel with medication, and trauma such as road injuries, falls or near-drowning, and more. Depending on your health status and risk at your destination, it is not uncommon for travel health practitioners to advise postponing a trip, changing the itinerary, or not travelling at all.

Typically, medical travel includes the following:
  • Research: Finding a medical tourism provider and exploring the standard of care you will be receiving abroad, including whether the facility is accredited by a reputable third party and if the doctor speaks your language, is licensed and qualified for the procedure; and finding out if the medications provided are legal and safe.
  • Communication: Providing your medical reports, your medical history, and your doctor's opinion; discussing the type of treatment and cost, duration of stay, including post-surgery care and follow-up mechanisms to deal with complications; and exploring if your insurance company will pay for post-procedure care if complications arise back home.
  • Legalities: Signing contracts, coordinating entry Visa requirements, organizing travel and accommodation logistics; finding out your legal recourse if your procedure goes wrong, including the malpractice and patient protection laws of your destination country.

In this fast growing industry, companies offer full medical travel packages helping patients find the appropriate medical facility and doctors, including arranging travel and accommodation. Some insurance companies also cover travellers seeking medical abroad. However, concern over medical liability and malpractice suits abroad means that medical travel patients continue to incur out-of-pocket expenses for their procedures.

Medical travel and travel medicine cross paths when medical travel patients are exposed to infectious diseases during their stay abroad. Depending on your health status, you may be at higher risk of contracting an infection such as antibiotic resistant MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus), hepatitis A, typhoid fever, influenza, or even tuberculosis - diseases that are uncommon back home, but are endemic in other countries.

Popular medical tourism destinations such as Brazil, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Panama, Dominican Republic, and Thailand, for example, all have malaria risk in certain regions of their country. If you are considering doing sightseeing in the surrounding area, it is prudent to know what risks you may encounter.

Irrespective of the type of travel you do, international travel has social, economic, and political implications on local populations. Being a responsible traveller – whether seeking medical procedures abroad or falling ill during your trip – means being well prepared, weighing the risks involved, and leaving the smallest health footprint behind.

Last reviewed and updated: December 11, 2020.

Travel Health Journal