“I’d like a Mai Tai with my surgery, please”

Medical tourism—traveling abroad for the purpose of obtaining healthcare—was once considered a renegade industry but is now mainstream and expected to increase greatly in frequency and reach. It is a consumer-driven trend, as patients seek ways to mitigate healthcare costs, but it continues to gain approval and even support from domestic insurers as well as foreign governments.

The numbers are already immense and expected to grow exponentially: 550,000 Americans flocked overseas for dental procedures, cosmetic surgery, fertility treatments and knee and hip replacements in 2010, and that number is expected to rise to 23 million in 6 years. And it’s not difficult to see why from an individual cost perspective; there are big savings when one seeks a heart valve replacement, which costs $160,000 in the US, in India instead for $9,000. Particularly for those without dental insurance, saving 80% on crowns, bridges, and implants abroad amounts to an immense cost difference, even when considering airfare.

As patients continue to look for cost savings outside the border, the US stands to lose up to $600 billion in potential revenue by 2017, yet, perhaps surprisingly, insurance companies are on board in an effort to reduce their own costs. Several insurers have launched medical tourism pilot programs within their health benefits plans, and from a legislative perspective, 71% of insurance companies and employers thought healthcare reform would have a positive effect on the medical tourism industry.

Along with “medical concierge” services companies and medical schools with overseas alliances (Harvard in Dubai, Johns Hopkins and Duke in Singapore), foreign governments are embracing the trend. Currently, the most popular destinations include India, Thailand, Singapore, and Brazil, with growing industries in Russia, China, Korea, the Middle East, the Gulf Coast and CIS countries. Governments and tourism boards are providing services such as visa assistance, airport pickup, lodging and medical assistance, oftentimes making the experience a pleasant one that resembles a spa trip for the patients and their companions and making the rehabilitation process much more enjoyable. And the post-trip satisfaction is evident as well, with 86% of patients saying they’d travel overseas again for medical care, and 85% finding they received more personalized care abroad.

There are potential complications, however, particularly in terms of follow-up care upon return to the US. Many countries do not use the electronic medical records the US is shifting toward, and even the physical medical records may often be incomplete or indecipherable to US doctors. In addition, some methods used abroad may be unfamiliar here, complicating follow-up care. Nevertheless, these are not likely to be huge deterrents and this trend is continuing to pick up speed.

Sources: A more cost-effective means of healthcare for Americans: medical tourism comes of age in the United States. PR Newswire; March 22, 2011. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Chapter 2: the pre-travel consultation. Dental vacation center saving people up to 80% on their dental bills. Webwire; January 9, 2012. Double-digit growth in Asian medical tourism. NewsTrak Daily; April 15, 2011. Medical tourism: an Rx for hotels. Lodging Hospitality; September 28, 2010. Passport Health’s CEO speaks at MediTourExpo 2011. GlobeNewswire; May 23, 2011. PlacidWay joins with the Medical Tourism Association to promote global healthcare. M2 Presswire; March 3, 2011.  The amazing (medical tourism) race. BenefitsPro; January 3, 2011. Medical tourism: game-changing innovation or passing fad? Healthcare Financial Management. 2010; 64(9):112-118.

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