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Medical tourism and your medical practice

If you’ve been a medical office manager for 10 years or more, you’ve probably heard of medical tourism.

There was a lot of buzz about it several years ago. Experts said medical tourism was the new frontier and it would revolutionize medical care. It turns out the projections were inaccurate and the supposed next big thing didn’t exactly take the medical world by storm.

Be that as it may, medical tourism is still big business. Patients Beyond Borders, a source for consumer information about international medical and health travel, estimates the market size is $38.5 to $55 billion in the United States alone, based on approximately 11 million cross-border patients worldwide spending an average of $3,500 to $5,000 per visit. At the same time, an estimated 1.2 million Americans traveled outside the U.S. for medical care in 2014.

Meanwhile, Patients Beyond Borders estimates the worldwide medical tourism market is growing at a rate of 15 to 25 percent per year, with rates highest in North, Southeast, and South Asia.

Given such mobility, medical tourism is a concept with which medical office managers should be familiar.

By definition

There is a lot of confusion surrounding medical tourism, partly because the word tourism makes people think of vacation destinations.

But medical tourism is not about a vacation. It is, however, about a destination: a destination for medical care.

Medical tourism is the travel of people to another country for the purpose of receiving medical care. The term can refer to people in the United States traveling abroad or to people traveling to the U.S. for care.

Julie Munro, president of Medical Travel Quality Alliance, an organization that promotes quality and safety in medical tourism and provides certification for providers of treatment and care, cites important differences between regular tourism and medical tourism.

“Medical tourism is not a vacation,” she says. “Medical tourists are not holiday goers. Medical tourism is health care. Your customers are patients.”

Munro also points out that wellness tourism is not medical tourism.

Wellness tourism, by definition, encompasses services like alternative therapies and wellness treatments; most dental treatments; some non-invasive cosmetic procedures (Botox, facial fillers, spot liposuction, fat injections); acupuncture; ayurveda; mineral waters; colonic cleansing; and similar procedures.

Medical tourism, by contrast, tends to involve discretionary procedures that are almost always invasive, such as total knee replacement; coronary artery bypass graft; kidney transplant; arthroscopic surgery; fertility treatment; microdiscectomy; weight loss surgery; and cancer treatment, among others.

What’s more, with medical tourism procedures, serious complications can occur. These include, but are not limited to, cardiac arrest during surgery; deep vein thrombosis; pulmonary emboli; hemorrhage; infection; pneumothorax, hypotension; sepsis; urinary tract infection; and pneumonia.

“There are no do-overs in medical tourism,” Munro says.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) notes that specific risks of medical tourism depend on the area being visited and the procedures; however, it has identified some general issues:

  • Communication may be a problem. Receiving care at a facility where a person does not speak the language fluently increases the chance that misunderstandings will arise about the care.
  • Doctors may reuse needles between patients or have other unsafe injection practices, which can transmit diseases such as hepatitis and HIV.
  • Medication may be counterfeit or of poor quality in some countries.
  • Antibiotic resistance is a global problem, and resistant bacteria may be more common in other countries than in the United States.
  • The blood supply in some countries comes primarily from paid donors and may not be screened, which puts patients at risk of HIV and other infections spread through blood.
  • Flying after surgery increases the risk for blood clots.

Why medical tourism

Given the risks and potential issues, why do so many people seek medical treatment in countries other than the United States?

Cost is often a factor.

Using U.S. costs across a variety of specialties and procedures as a benchmark, Patients Beyond Borders provides average range of savings for the most-traveled destinations:

  • Brazil: 20-30%
  • Costa Rica: 45-65%
  • India: 65-90%
  • Malaysia: 65-80%
  • Mexico: 40-65%
  • Singapore: 25-40%
  • South Korea: 30-45%
  • Taiwan: 40-55%
  • Thailand: 50-75%
  • Turkey: 50-65%

Availability of quality care is also a reason people travel abroad, both from the U.S. and to it.

Patients Beyond Borders notes, “the world population is aging and becoming more affluent at rates that surpass the availability of quality healthcare resources. At the same time, out-of-pocket medical costs of critical and elective procedures continue to rise, while nations offering universal care are faced with ever-increasing resource burdens. These drivers are forcing patients to pursue cross-border healthcare options either to save money or to avoid long waits for treatment.”

The top destinations for medical treatment, according to Patients Beyond Borders, are Costa Rica, India, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, and the United States.

Challenges and opportunity

For medical office managers, it’s helpful to keep in mind that medical tourism involves one of two possible scenarios: a patient who seeks treatment outside the U.S. or a patient who travels to the U.S. for treatment.

Each scenario has many components, including transfer of medical records, as well as insurance and payment issues.

But perhaps the most often overlooked component is opportunity.

Indeed, Munro points to the opportunity medical tourism presents for hospitals and clinics to grow their business.

With millions of patients seeking treatment abroad, and the U.S. a top destination, is medical tourism an area your practice should explore?

Related reading:

Education resources for Spanish-speaking patients to display on your practice website

Should your practice enlist the services of a medical interpreter?

Top 10 patient safety concerns









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