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Business

Sun, Sea and a New Nose

If you want to save money you compare prices, you search for the cheapest offer -- and find it in Eastern Europe or Asia: Gold teeth from Hungary or a new hip from Thailand. "Medical tourism" is on the rise in Europe.

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Ouch! But it's cheap

The dental clinic with the catchy name "Diamond Dent" peddles its services with "Toothweeks": A taxi service, accommodation and a leisure program included for those who would like to have their gold crowns installed in between a goulash party and a tour through Budapest.

And that resourceful package deal for customers isn't the only service of its kind: some 150 dental practices thrive in Mosonmagyarovar, a small Hungarian city located 70 kilometers (43 miles) from Vienna. All of them woo wealthy patients from abroad.

Searching for bargains

Parlament und Donau Budapest Ungarn

Budapest

An increasing number of "medical tourists" jet around the globe hunting for bargains: Teeth from Hungary, new noses and breasts from the Czech Republic, a cheap hip from Thailand or an eye operation in Turkey.

According to a survey by the Institute for International Economy in Hamburg, US citizens alone spend around $6 million (€4.9 million) for medical treatment in Latin America. India expects an additional $1 billion turnover by the year 2012 in the field. As early as 2001, more than 70,000 private patients flew to Malaysia for medical treatment. "medical tourism" is definitely booming.

Low wages the secret

The head of "Diamond Dent," Adrienne Roth, confirms it. Ninety-eight percent of roughly 40 patients she sees daily are western Europeans, she says.

Business is flourishing and Roth says there is a reason for that. "We're cheaper. Implants here in Hungary cost €620, in Germany you have to pay a minimum of €1,000." The quality is the same, she says and adds that the cheaper prices are due to lower wages. A technician in Hungary earns around €300 a month, while in Germany wages are five times as high, Roth says.

Health insurance pays, sometimes

Barbara Mahnach of the state health insurance AOK's national association in Germany explains that medical treatments in EU countries are covered by health insurance. "Such a trip can be worthwhile because the patient's own contribution decreases."

But German health insurers don't cover the expenses of medical treatment beyond EU borders.

Strand im Südwesten der Insel Mauritius

A bathing holiday including plastic surgery

It isn't difficult to figure out why. Several Asian countries have turned hospital stays for western tourists into something of a luxury vacation. Savvy tourist agencies have been quick to cash in, offering package tours that include a beach holiday and surgery.

Ralf Krewer, marketing head at Bangkok Hospital, says such a vacation pays off. "The people in Europe pay a huge amount of money only for medical treatment but here they can have both, medical treatment and a holiday for the same price." Krewer says the quality of treatment is even better than in Germany.

In the face of such attractive offers, many seem prepared to forget the things that could go wrong during operations. Some 650,000 medical tourists are estimated to have traveled to Thailand last year.

Medical tourism in Germany

But the rush to get cheap treatment in other countries seems to work the other way around too. British and Norwegian citizens travel to Germany because of the long waiting periods and low capacities at home.

According to Professor Peter Oberender, a health economist at the University of Bayreuth, an estimated 10,000 patients do so every year. Rich Russians and patients from Arab countries are also attracted by the good reputation of German medical care.

"These wealthy patients from abroad are highly attractive, because they bring in additional income and guarantee profits," says Oberender.

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