State of the Medical Tourism Industry

By
Jonathan Edelheit

In the early beginnings of health tourism, people traveled miles to Greece, Egypt, North Africa, and Rome for recreation, spiritual reawakening, and wellness. Now, with significant advances in medicine and technology, health tourism has grown to become a multi-billion dollar globalized industry that connects people to different parts of the world where they can access quality medical care. 


Today, no less than 20 million people travel across the world every year to receive healthcare services, spending an average of USD 3410 per visit. This includes the costs of transportation, accommodation, inpatient stay, and medical-related expenditure. 


Furthermore, experts estimate that 1.9 million Americans will travel abroad to get medical treatment in 2019. For many of these travelers, the healthcare services they receive in these countries are usually at par, if not superior, to what is obtained in the United States. 


But that’s not all. It saves them a lot of money!


Undeniably, the cost of healthcare in the United States is sky-high and relatively unaffordable for a lot of people. A recent report by the Gallup National Health and Well-being Index revealed that 13.7 percent of American adults were uninsured in the last quarter of 2018. This represents more than 30 million adults without health insurance coverage in the country. 


Even those who have health insurance coverage are not shielded from the rising cost of healthcare. These people still end up paying thousands of dollars in out-of-pocket costs to receive medical treatment. 


Consequently, Americans - including employers and insurers - are beginning to rethink access to medical care, with a view not only to save costs but to obtain a similar quality of healthcare. For instance, while uninsured Americans can pay up to USD 33,000 for knee replacement surgery in the United States, they can get the same surgery done in India at almost half that price. 


Similarly, in other countries with advanced healthcare and technology such as Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, and Costa Rica, the costs of medical treatment can be as low as 80 percent the cost of similar treatment in the United States.


Employers and insurers are also not putting medical tourism in the backburner. These healthcare buyers are engaging the key players in the medical tourism industry to connect their clients to high-quality healthcare centers at a more affordable cost. 


These employers and insurers are also taking a different dimension to sourcing healthcare for their clients. In what is described as domestic medical tourism, employers make direct contracts with Centers of Excellence in the same or other states of the country to access quality healthcare at a lower cost.


This model, which has been adopted by several companies including Walmart, Jet Blue, Pepsi, and Boeing, saves the buyers a lot of money. 


This is typified in an agreement between Walmart and Geisinger Medical Center. According to a recent report, a local surgeon recommended spine surgery for a Walmart employee that presented with severe back pain and tremors. However, through the direct contractual agreement with Geisinger, Walmart paid for the patient to travel to the Medical Center in Pennsylvania for a second opinion. Geisinger diagnosed Parkinson’s disease after a thorough evaluation and placed the patient on appropriate medications. After receiving treatment, the patient returned fully to work.


This contractual relationship with Geisinger averted an unnecessary $30,000 spinal surgery and potentially saves much more for Walmart’s other employees.


Therefore, as the healthcare market broadens, the key players have a growing need to improve on the metrics that drive medical travel. 


The Medical Tourism Association designed a measure, the Medical Tourism Index, that identifies three key metrics as integral to the success of a medical tourism destination. These factors include the destination environment, the medical tourism industry of the destination, and the quality of facilities and services required for health travel. 


These metrics have several subsets by which they are measured. The destination environment is measured using the economy, culture, and safety profiles of the destination; subsets of the medical tourism industry of a destination include the costs of medical travel in the country and the attractiveness of the site, and; the quality of a medical tourism destination is assessed using the reputation and quality of its healthcare, overall patient experience, and the accreditation status of its institutions. 


According to a recent Medical Tourism Pulse Survey by the Medical Tourism Association to determine the current drivers of the market, 100 percent of healthcare professionals and institutions prioritized clinical experience and professional credentials as among the most important factors that drive inward health travel to their destinations. 


These metrics are what matters to international patients, and these destinations are building their forte along these lines. 

While many of these health travel sites have been investing heavily in these metrics, they still face several challenges, one of which is data management. As the international patient population increases, more patient data is continuously transferred between providers and institutions, and securing these data is imperative. 


According to the Pulse Survey, more than 40 percent of medical tourism professionals do not have the technology and resources to ensure data privacy and protection. 


The recent enactment of the Global Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) compliance has made this even more exigent. The GDPR has set a standard for the protection of patient data, holding healthcare providers and institutions liable for breaches in patient data security. This raises the bar higher and serves as another key factor in choosing a health travel destination. 


Data protection is not the only challenge medical tourism stakeholders face, communication barriers, problems with travel logistics, and post-care coordination of care are also critical issues in medical tourism.


And for patients, the fear of contracting infectious diseases from these destination sites, the risk of treatment complications, and gray areas of insurance coverage (including coverage for accidents and unforeseen health complications) are the factors impeding travel to many destinations. 


While the industry has grown tremendously over the years, there are still hurdles that need to be overcome. Medical tourism destinations need to harness the requisite resources and technology to overturn these barriers and make healthcare more accessible to medical tourists around the world.