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A Little History of Medical Tourism

Medical tourism is often thought of as a recent phenomenon. The truth, however, is that people have been traveling long distances to better their health for thousands of years. Granted, it’s hard to picture a swarthy chieftain traipsing across the desert on his camel to barter for a nicer set of pearly whites. Were clinics and hospitals even around that long ago, thousands of years ago?

Archaeological evidence from the third millennium B.C. suggests that ancient Mesopotamians traveled to the temple of a healing god or goddess at Tell Brak, Syria, in search of a cure for eye disorders. A few thousand years later the Greeks and Romans would travel by foot or ship to spas and cult centers all around the Mediterranean. The Asclepia Temples, dedicated in honor of the Greek god of medicine, were some of the world's first health centers. Pilgrims would sometimes spend several nights in the temple, hoping Asclepios would appear in a dream and suggest a diagnosis or treatment.

Later in the 16th and 17th centuries, spa towns such as St. Moritz and Bath became prime destinations for the European upper classes looking to soothe their ills. What kind of “procedures” were the ancients seeking? No butt lifts or hip and knee replacements, that’s for sure. Many were looking for “healing” waters or the benevolence of the gods to cure common ailments of the time such as rheumatism, syphilis, gonorrhea, blindness and paralysis.

Modern medical tourism as we know it today has largely been the result of several factors including the high cost of medical care in first world nations, ease of long distance travel, and advances in information technology.