Demand for Stem Cells Growing Fast, Many Turn to Medical Tourism

6,426 8 Loading
collage for medical tourism

Medical tourism is a billion dollar industry and it's started to expand into marketing stem cell therapies.

You can't keep a good thing down. When the US restricted stem cell research in the early part of the century that research didn't die, it emigrated. All over the world, scientists continued to explore the efficacies of embryonic and adult stem cells with astonishing results. Now, as the public becomes increasingly aware of these "miracle" treatments, the demand for stem cell therapies has increased far beyond what institutionalized Western medicine seems able to immediately provide. The result is both exhilarating and terrifying: more and more patients from the US and Europe are traveling abroad to seek stem cell treatments. This is just a tiny fraction of the ever increasing flood of medical tourism that has struck the West. Companies like Atlanta based Global Surgery Providers (GSP) are marketing directly to patients, facilitating travel for medical procedures including stem cell transplants. While governments, doctors, and patients are still struggling to understand the dangers and advantages of medical tourism, it continues to grow. One thing is for certain, no matter what any one institution may try to do to control the use of stem cells, the demand for this technology is too strong to be stopped.

While many researchers are working overtime to get stem cell therapies safely to market, the public perception in the US is that this technology is stalled. It doesn't help that big name studies, like the first US embryonic test by Geron, have run into bureaucratic roadblocks even after the political ones were pulled away. When the US allows stem cell treatments for animals, but not humans, this is seen as backwards, not as a necessary result of the stringent review applied to new medicine. It takes time for any new product to pass FDA approval, but patients want stem cells now.

And why wouldn't they - have you seen some of the amazing things that stem cells can do? First there's the eye-popping pictures of new organs grown in labs. We've even seen a new windpipe created and implanted in just weeks thanks to a technique that used a patient's own stem cells. Add to that the promising results seen with diabetes and blindness...well, if I was in need of such a treatment, I would be demanding access to stem cells, too.

Which is where medical tourism comes in. Why wait years for the resolution of clinical trials and bureaucratic red tape when you can jump on a plane and get treated in a manner of weeks? Atlanta's GSP is just one of many medical travel agencies that has picked up on the stem cell trend. They offer consultations (via phone only at this time) that could help you find a stem cell therapy center somewhere across the world. Similar agencies cater to the UK, Canada, and many different locations in Europe.

When you see a company offering to take you to a foreign country for a miraculous new medical procedure, it can all seem new and untested. Parts of it are. Yet the medical tourism industry has been growing strong for years now. Once the province of cosmetic surgeries and dental procedures, medical tourism now includes those looking for hip/joint replacement, heart surgery, even organ transplant. Some 750,000 Americans were thought to have traveled outside the US for medical treatment in 2007. A survey published by Deloitte in 2009 found that 3% of those 3000 18 to 75 year old Americans polled had used some form of medical tourism and that 27% would consider it (see page 13 of the results). A significant 40% would pursue medical travel if they could save 50% or more on costs.

Cost and availability top the list of reasons why people seek healthcare travel. In the US, a heart valve operation might run you $200k, but the same procedure in India could be done for $10k, including travel and accommodations. In countries with socialized medicine, waiting for months on necessary (but not "critical") surgery pushes many to seek help outside their borders.

It's no wonder that different agencies have arisen to promote medical tourism and address the concerns of its detractors. The most well known of these is the Joint Commission International which seeks to certify hospitals and other medical facilities around the world. A JCI certificate is often seen as a guarantee that a facility will live up to Western medical standards. Other organizations, like the Medical Tourism Association, offer their own certification while serving as a business networking opportunity for those institutions that want to grow the industry.

Yet if medical tourism is increasingly seen as legitimate, "foreign" stem cell therapies are still stigmatized by the established medical profession. The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) has called for greater transparency and open evaluation of stem cell therapies. They worry about clinics directly marketing to patients and using anecdotal evidence to support their medical claims. Even those medical travel agencies (like GSP) that are venturing into stem cell treatments are quick to advise patients that many treatments are untested, and that not all therapies will work for all people.

The problem with venturing outside the (painfully) slow review process that plagues the West is the presence of crippling uncertainty. For every clinic in Germany that seems to have somewhat reputable results, there's some clinic shut down in Hungary for being untested and unlicensed. Patients cannot know for sure if the treatments they receive as part of stem cell medical tourism will work. Or even be safe.

I don't think that's going to stop anything. As I said in the beginning, you can't keep a good thing down. That's true even if you're uncertain about how good it really is. Stem cells therapies hold such amazing promise that they are going to be used no matter what. Years before the medical community as a whole would be comfortable with their use, stem cells have captured the hopes of patients the world over. In a sense, it doesn't matter if medical review processes are unnecessarily slow or not. It doesn't matter if stem cell therapies in different parts of the world are legitimate or not. Patients in need will seek out untested technologies as soon as the promised benefits outweigh the perceived risks. We've already passed that point. For better or for worse.

In a few years stem cell research is likely to be complete enough to produce clinically proven and nationally licensed therapies. But a few years can be a lifetime. I'm still doubtful as to whether stem cell clinics anywhere in the world really possess effective and safe treatments. Yet I know that dire situations force many to choose hope over doubt. Good luck to everyone, no matter which side of the coin you land on. And rest assured: one day recognized stem cell treatments will be available. Can't be stopped.

[image credit: Stem Cell Blog]

Discussion — 8 Responses

  • Dha Kur March 1, 2010 on 10:27 am

    Here are few things that are positive bout medical tourism.
    1. Medical Tourism provides an excellent and proven solution for those in need in developed countries or from the countries in addition to those travelling else where for lack of facilities.
    2. In long run, developing countries will be building more hospitals which are world class, thus improving the health care for the local public.
    3. Competition in medical sector in developed countries will benefit the consumers alos.
    On the other side, some of the medical tourism destinations offer little or no legal protection, in many countries there is no regulatory authority to protect medical tourists.
    Thanks for this blog on latest developments in stem cell related treatments available in other countries.

    Dha Kur
    Online Medical Tourist Community

  • caroline Carr-Locke March 1, 2010 on 11:42 am

    i have been diagnosed with Idiopathic Axonal peripheral neuropathy 18 months ago I can hardly walk and I have been told in Scotland UK there is no treatment cure and it will be decades before anything is found So what to do? I have been in contact with the Xcell in Germany Is it bogus ???? In Scotland I have been told it is bogus but they use ADULT STEM CELLS in Germany
    i HAVE BEEN FIT ALL MY LIFE and I am desperate What would you do ?

  • David March 1, 2010 on 5:07 pm

    You know, I am really surprised that there isn't a whole industry of cruise-ship hospitals popping up which do nothing but provide cutting edge therapies for people seeking medical treatment. They would just need a flag of convenience and hire their pick of enterprising doctors and other medical professionals who want to work unfettered by red tape. I'm not saying that this is 100% a good thing or that it wouldn't have problems or causes for concern, but I am surprised that this does not exist yet. They could stay put in international waters near a country with many potential customers, making medical tourism much cheaper and accessible. You wouldn't have to wait for seasteading to become a reality for this to happen.

  • StemCellBlogger March 1, 2010 on 10:20 pm


  • The Dentist Abroad March 2, 2010 on 1:13 am

    Excellent article -definitely worth archiving.

  • JFSchafer March 11, 2010 on 6:39 pm

    I am a Medical Tour Operator, and sending patients overseas for Stem Cell Therapy has become the largest single portion of our business over the past year. This medicine is, and will continue to change everything, but you will not see it happen here in the US for 2 very good reasons.
    1. It has the potential to change everything, and the medical community likes the way things are right now. Having a new form of treatment that could actually heal vs/ treat. Physicians, Pharmaceutical Companies, Medical Providers, and yes associations that should be looking for cures, all stand to lose a large portion of their income and their business.
    2. Stem Cell Therapy and treatments WILL continue to evolve to the point of replacing body parts, and play a significant role in preserving life. Some lives could be preserved indefinitely, and with a Medical System that is already government run for people over 65… that wants to be able to make decisions on ALL health care, for ALL people… the question of who deserves to live vs/ who needs to die is exacerbated.
    Thus… Stem Cell Technologies for North America (as well as any Socialist Healtcare system) will always be outsourced to those who can afford them.

    Thus… the second issue. Presenting the “information” that these processes are available out of the country. We have always been a people who “believe what people believe – think what people think – and are told what to believe and think from the media… which determines it's position completely by revenues. Who is willing to go out and shoot their own Sacred Cow ?

    Now… the GOOD news. Platforms like this (the Internet in general…) provide an uncensored compilation of real information, and (the generations that are just behind me), are able to search and find valuable information… and for the first time in history… think without being told what to think… and act with their own information !

    and… if you don't think this is going to change EVERYTHING, you're not thinking on your own. Medical Tourism, which os simply the outsourcing of Medical and Surgical treatments beyond US jurisdiction is certainly making a stand, and will continue to until ALL Americans realize that they have the choice to select their treatments and care from among the best in the world… not just the best in their hometown… and add to that the fact that most medical costs are 80% less expensive overseas (The USA is now ranked #37 in the World) and you WILL receive better care and unregulated options… and it becomes a no-brainer.
    and if you have not got brains enough to understand this, and think it through to understanding, we have Stem Cell Treatments available that will get that old gray matter functioning again !!!

  • surgery cost June 28, 2012 on 8:19 am

    I reckon it is positive thing that medical tourism is expanding because it gives patients a wider variety of services to choose from. What once was unaffordable, no becomes easy to reach. Differences in prices are staggering. Price comparison site gives quotes from around 30 countries for various surgeries including dental treatment,weight loss surgeries and orthopaedic surgeries.

  • Richard Liu June 21, 2013 on 9:56 am

    Great article! It was worth reading. Your work is much appreciated. Please share more such articles on Medical Tourism in the future as well.