Harvard Health Letter

Virtual hitchhiker's guide to the medical universe

Armchair exploration of foreign health care systems can be almost as enlightening as an actual visit.

Medical tourism, the practice of combining medical treatment with vacationing, is growing at a staggering rate. Of course, like much international travel, medical tourism is for the adventuresome. If you're among the more cautious, there's a safe way to sample the health wisdom of other nations from the comfort of your armchair: the Internet. For our tour, we chose English-language Web sites from 12 countries. All are produced or vetted by the central health agencies of the countries featured.

The variety of experiences is staggering. There are striking commonalities and huge disparities in health topics featured from site to site. Almost every country has a version of the food pyramid and recommended exercise goals, which are, for the most part, interchangeable with those in the United States. But the advice for pursuing such efforts is as varied as the national temperaments. Botswana encourages its citizens to approach risk reduction with creativity and enterprise, while Hong Kong prescribes meticulously designed regimens. Not surprisingly, developing nations emphasize infectious diseases, while developed countries concentrate on degenerative disorders. The richness of a nation's Web site seems to be proportional to its GDP, but even the poorest nations offer nuggets of advice that could serve all of us well. We've posted all the Web sites listed in this article on our Web site at www.health.harvard.edu/healthextra. Bon voyage!

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