The arrival of a growing number of pregnant Russian women to give birth at local medical institutions is just the latest manifestation of a phenomenon which has been growing and expanding for the last 15 years: the so-called “medical tourism boom” turning Argentina into an increasingly important "hub," both between neighbouring countries and those living further afield.
Of late – due to the country's geopolitical conditions and factors such as the Russian-Ukrainian war – business is booming. In fact, local clinics are already registering patients not only from Russia, but also from the Middle East and even from some European countries or southern parts of the United States. All this is part of a clear global trend in which "medical tourism" is growing in Argentina at a rate of 25 percent a year.
The most recent example was reflected in a report published by The Guardian, which found – citing data from the Russian Embassy – that since the war in Ukraine began, between 2,000 and 2,500 Russians have moved to Argentina. Georgy Polin, the head of the consular department of the Embassy in Argentina, told the British newspaper many of them were women planning to give birth in the country, forecasting that the number this year could rise to 10,000.
However, the arrival of women for birthing is not just a result of medical tourism. “More and more people are coming to Argentina for various reasons," Pablo Paltrinieri, vice-president of the Argentine Chamber of Medical Tourism (Cámara Argentina de Turismo Médico, CATM), explained to Perfil.
Paltrinieri, who is also a commercial director for the Hospital Privado Universitario in Córdoba, recognised that "the case of the Russian pregnant women … is surely driven by an exceptional geopolitical situation because few countries guarantee unrestricted access to Russian citizens, with few formalities."
Dr. Enrique Pérez Gras concurs. For the international patient consultant at the Hospital Austral, "the issue of these births is specific – Russia is too far away for this to become common practice in the coming years.”
According to Paltrinieri, there are other explanations for this tourism boom. The first is the possibility of receiving excellent medical care, ranging from simple cosmetic surgeries to highly complex practices, in institutions and professionals whose quality has been internationally certified. The Argentine medicine system is considered to be one of the best in Latin America, save only Brazil.
Secondly, due to the devaluation of the local currency, the peso, procedures come at very competitive prices.
"Today in Argentina almost any medical service can be obtained at a cost of up to 30 percent less – in dollar terms – than in other countries in the region. And only 50 percent of what it costs in the United States," the expert offered.
The wide range of healthcare providers and Buenos Aires’ destination as a major tourist destination also increases the appeal.
All these advantages help explain why medical tourism in Argentina is on the rise. "According to the data we recorded up until the pandemic, it was a sector with a growth rate of between 25 and 30 percent" a year, said Paltrinieri.
The expert emphasised that – according to data spanning until 2019 – an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people a year were arriving from abroad specifically for medical reasons. And in the last months of 2022, "even without consolidated data, the demand in number of patients already exceeds what was happening before the pandemic," he added.
There is also a technological factor boosting business: ‘telemedicine,’ According to the CATM, "many patients can have subsequent check-ups remotely with the team which treated them and the collaboration of a local professional.”
So what are the practices most in demand by patients who come for treatment? Between 55 and 60 percent are looking for curative medicine, (operations and specific treatments, radiology, etc.); 30 percent are procedures related to aesthetic or cosmetic surgeries and the final 10 percent are related to “wellness tourism” – i.e. weight control issues, etc. In any case, although there are many procedures available, Argentina is well positioned to competitively offer medium and high complexity medical practices, including transplants, oncology and cardiac interventions.
According to CATM data, the medical tourism segment – if properly articulated between the regulating state and private providers -– can become a new income stream for foreign currency and a source of quality employment in the near future. Paltrinieri explained that "today we are receiving, for this sector, barely two percent of what Mexico or Thailand receives" And Pérez Gras added: "We believe we can grow by receiving more patients from Uruguay, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, as well as several countries in Central America and the Caribbean."
Both experts conclude by highlighting the economic potential that this sector promises for Argentina. Globally, according to data compiled by the organisation Patients Beyond Borders, the medical tourism sector already generates a turnover of between US$74 billion and US$92 billion.
According to Paltrinieri, visiting patients tend to stay in Argentina for between two and six weeks with at least one travel companion. “In total, these patients can generate an economic movement of around US$25,000, on average," he summarised, spending between five and nine times more than traditional tourists.