Forecasts for the global medical tourism market predict a growth of at least 18 per cent over the next decade, to reach about $99 billion by 2025.
Per these reports, some of the leading global medical tourism destinations are Singapore, Thailand, India, Malaysia, Taiwan, Mexico and Costa Rica, with Thailand and India taking the lead in having the largest number of accredited medical facilities.
India, which is listed as a top destination for Africans seeking treatment overseas, is poised to more than double its medical tourism market from the current $3 billion to over $8 billion by 2020.
Just to bring it closer home, by 2015 East Africans were spending about $1 billon on medical treatment in India.
Given the state of medical facilities in the region, the need for travel to India and Thailand for medical purposes is not about to lessen. In fact, the numbers are expected to increase.
The travel component of medical tourism can be very strenuous, depending on the condition of the patient.
It doesn’t help that most people are not familiar with airline policy and regulations regarding travel for medical cases.
While most airlines have no means of ensuring that every passenger they carry is fit to travel, they will try as much as possible try to ensure that the condition of passengers with unstable medical conditions will not deteriorate while flying.
It is therefore important that passengers familiarise themselves with policies and regulations ahead of ticketing if travelling with a medical condition.
Working with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) guidelines, airlines have in place a Passenger Medical Clearance Unit made up of medically experienced staff whose duty is to advise on suitability and fitness to fly.
Commonly referred to as MEDIF, the Medical Information Form should always be obtained from the airline in advance of travel and completed truthfully then returned to the airline alongside a medical report or medical certificate and any other documents requested.
While a medical report is usually more detailed and contains diagnosis, a summary of hospitalisation and recent general condition of the patient, a medical certificate includes a brief diagnosis and states whether the passenger is fit for air travel and if any precautionary measures are required.
Passengers travelling frequently with a known chronic and stable medical condition should apply for a pre-approved Frequent Traveller’s Medical Card (FREMEC). It describes the passenger’s medical needs and special handling requirements, and the passenger need not obtain medical clearance for every travel.
The Passenger Medical Clearance Unit at the airline, is the final authority over who is fit to fly regardless of medical certificate recommendations.
They key reason airlines insist on advance passenger information in medical cases is to ensure adequate preparation and confirm that they have the facilities to cater for the traveler ill adequately.
With ample notice, airlines provide special services like special meals (diabetic, no salt, low cholesterol, etc), wheelchairs, special seating, availability of oxygen and stretchers.
Once an airline accepts a passenger with a medical condition, they are bound to make all logistical arrangements pertaining to their comfort.
There are of course countries where local law constrains airline and industry guidelines specifically regarding carriage of passengers with reduced mobility.
The rule of thumb is that any medical condition that renders a passenger unable to complete a flight without requiring extra medical assistance during the flight is considered unacceptable for air travel.
For instance, reduced atmospheric pressures at takeoff and landing coupled with oxygen tension could pose a serious threat to the health and well-being of a sick passenger.
Be sure to apprise yourself of airlines’ lists of medical conditions that are unacceptable for air travel.
There are also post-operative conditions that that can affect travel, for instance travel within 10 days of abdominal surgery or 21 days of eye and chest operations is not recommended.
Even though pregnancy by many standards is not considered a medical condition, many airlines will only allow travel up to between the 35th and 37th weeks of pregnancy, not beyond.
Note that airlines require doctors reports to be clear on “Single/Multiple” and “Complicated/Uncomplicated” in pregnancy cases.
Air travel with newborn babies less than a week old is not allowed.
Once on board, travellers can take comfort in knowing that all airlines train their cabin crew in first aid.
However, most if not all airlines strictly prohibit their crew from administering medication or injections or even giving special assistance to passengers at the expense of other travellers.
Remember the key reason for full declaration of a passengers’ medical condition is to ensure their comfort and that of other passengers can be guaranteed during the flight.
This article was published earlier in The East African February 4, 2017 Conditions for flying while ill.