1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Germany sees drop in medical tourism

Sophie Dissemond
October 24, 2022

Many foreigners used to visit Germany to undergo medical treatment or get cosmetic surgery. But the COVID-19 pandemic and Ukraine war have hit the industry hard.

A plastic surgeon holding a full syringe over a woman's face marked with black
Plastic surgery is among the fields medical tourists seek out in GermanyImage: Elnur Amikishiiyev/Zoonar/picture alliance

Germany is one of Europe's most popular medical tourism destinations, with its orthopedists, cardiologists and surgeons especially popular with international guests.

"Patients with rare illnesses want the best possible treatment, and for that they may consider traveling to Germany," says Mariam Asefi, who heads a medical tourism research unit at Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences.

She adds that getting treatment in Germany also has a "prestige" element. In addition, economic factors like currency stability also play an important role in people's decision to go to Germany. 

Doctors in blue-green gowns operate on a person
For some, going to Germany for medical treatment is also about underscoring one's social statusImage: Steffen Schellhorn/IMAGO

Global industry takes hit

Spurred by globalization, Medical tourism has been growing for years. The US, South Korea, Thailand and Turkey are among the most popular destinations for medical tourists.

Germany as well, in part because of its reasonable health care costs. In 2020, more than 65,000 foreigners from 177 different countries came to Germany to receive medical treatment. Most European guests hailed from Poland and the Netherlands, while most non-European patients came from Russia, Ukraine and Saudi Arabia.

Although Germany's health care sector enjoys an excellent reputation, the number of international patients has dropped in recent years.

There have been notably fewer Russian touristsvisiting Germany for medical treatments, says Mariam Asefi. In 2020, the number of Russian patients dropped by more than 30%. This decline was partially offset, however, by a rise in patients from EU states and Arabic countries.

German hospitals have taken a financial hit. University Clinic Freiburg, which runs a unit specifically for treating non-EU patients, saw a marked drop in admissions.

Pandemic-related travel restrictions were largely to blame for this.

In 2020, more than 1,000 international patients were treated at University Clinic Freiburg, whereas that number dropped to 800 in 2021. Most of these individuals hailed from Ukraine and Russia.

A vacant hospital bed
German hospitals are seeing fewer international patientsImage: Jens Büttner/ZB/dpa/picture alliance

Uncertain future

Several German hospitals began pivoting away from medical tourism even before the outbreak of coronavirus. Speaking to DW, a spokesperson for University Hospital of Dusseldorf said his clinic had stopped targeting foreign patients years ago, adding that this revenue stream was no longer particularly important for the hospital.

Berlin's Vivantes hospital group has seen a similar development. In March, the group shut its Vivantes International Medicine unit, which specifically catered to foreign patients. That was due to falling demand, which they said made the unit no longer financially viable. 

In 2020, fewer than 1,000 non-EU citizens sought medial treatment there, down from roughly 1,200 per year from 2016 to 2019.

It is not clear whether and to what extent medical tourism will rebound in Germany in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as with the continuation of the war in Ukraine.

Asefi nevertheless remains optimistic, telling DW: "I support medical tourism, including in Germany, especially in these globalized times."

This article was translated from German.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing.