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Book a flight -- and a hospital room

Tourists have long had many pursuits, from museums to quaint villages to get-away-from-it-all beaches. Now you can add health care to that list.

"Medical tourism" has become a common term for would-be patients who travel to other countries to get medical treatment -- sometimes for procedures that aren't available or allowed in their own countries -- at prices much less than they would find at home. And that hasn't gone unnoticed in U.S., where several areas are looking to get a piece of this booming business.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates up to 750,000 U.S. residents travel abroad annually for medical care, most often for procedures such as cosmetic surgery, dentistry and heart surgery. Other estimates say that number is much larger.

According to the medical tourism website Patients Beyond Borders, there are about 11 million "cross-border patients" worldwide, spending on average between $3,500 and $5,000 per visit and creating a market valued at up to $5.5 billion.

Demographics are also playing a big role. Given an aging global population and a rising middle class in many emerging economies, Patients Beyond Borders notes the number of relatively affluent people is rising "at rates that surpass the availability of quality healthcare resources." It also estimates the worldwide medical tourism market is expanding at a rate of 15% to 25%.

"The international medical marketplace is about to take off," Dr. Marty Makary, a surgery and public health expert at the Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health, recently told AARP.

"We're living in the era of the high deductible," he continued, "$10,000 in the bronze family plan under the new health law. People are paying more and looking to cut costs."

While rising health care costs may be prompting many Americans to travel abroad for affordable medical procedures, some parts of the U.S. are planning to lure both them and foreigners looking for such care.

Earlier this year, officials in Florida were considering spending several million dollars on advertising the Sunshine State as a destination for medical tourism. Proponents say the state has potential to market itself as the go-to place for uncommon and innovative medical treatment.

"Health care is focused on the super-specialization of services," Renee-Marie Stephano, president of the Medical Tourism Association, said during a recent conference on the issue. "Patients are no longer looking to go to general hospitals if they have a specialized condition."

Las Vegas is also trying to encourage medical tourism. In August, it unveiled the "Las Vegas Regional Strategic Plan For Medical & Wellness Tourism," that proponents say could profit from the region's existing economic and cultural strengths.

"Traditionally, global medical tourism has featured low-cost treatments in foreign countries and expensive, high-quality care at domestic medical providers," Stowe Shoemaker, dean of the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration at University of Nevada Las Vegas said in a statement.

"This plan offers a third way that capitalizes on Las Vegas's unique assets in tourism, wellness, and customer service."

The Las Vegas plan did acknowledge, however, that the region needed to support the growth of medical education and research if it wanted to attract more medical meetings as well as more "top-grade medical professionals and specialized medical tourism concierge professionals."

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