Medical Tourism Industry – A Focused Overview

Passport stethoscopecash and medical tourism

The medical tourism industry continues to grow and, as a result of the rising costs of medical procedures in the United States, Central Europe, and other developed nations, patients and their families continue searching for more-affordable alternatives abroad.

The term “medical tourism” originally described the movement of individuals from less-developed nations to highly developed ones for better healthcare services and surgical treatments unavailable in their home countries. The term has expanded considerably since then.

Improvements in healthcare technology and standards of care in erstwhile developing countries have attracted citizens from developed nations to travel to those destinations to obtain care at lower costs. The ease and affordability of international travel, long wait times for certain procedures, and the high cost of care are some of the factors contributing to the growth and popularity of the medical tourism industry. In the United Kingdom, the main reason for increased interest in that field is the long wait periods; in the U.S., it’s the high costs.

Medical tourism enables patients to have instant access to care for a fraction of the cost they would have in their home country. A cost comparison estimates that liver transplants in the U.S. cost an average of $330,000, in Taiwan $91,000.  Also, many patients find that their insurance doesn’t cover orthopedic surgery such as hip or knee replacements, or it severely limits the quality of care or choice of surgeon and facilities for covered procedures.


Top Destinations in Medical Tourism

A report estimates that 1.4 million medical tourists left the U.S. in 2016 to receive care abroad. It is estimated that the worldwide medical tourism market will continue to grow at an annual rate of 25% within the next decade as top medical destinations compete ferociously for health tourists. In no particular order, let’s take a look at some of the top medical travel destinations in the world.

  • Malaysia:  Malaysia won the award for “Health and Medical Tourism Destination of the year” three years in a row beginning in 2015. That made it one of the best healthcare providers in Southeast Asia. Medical tourists from the U.S. can save as much as 80% of care costs if they have their procedures done in Malaysia. The country is famous for excellent patient comfort, and providing patients with hospital rooms that look more like exquisite five-star hotel suites.
  • South Korea:  One of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, medical tourists visit South Korea to take advantage of its cutting-edge technology and receive advanced healthcare services. Insurance coverage is also provided to medical tourists to cover stress disorders, injury, and death as a result of medical treatment or procedures. With institutions such as Wooridul Spine Hospital in Seoul (one of the best providers of minimally invasive spinal surgery procedures) and exquisite accommodation facilities for patients and their traveling companions, South Korea has earned its position among the top 10.
  • Brazil:  According to recent findings, Brazil tops other Latin America countries in health tech and care delivery. It’s a hub for plastic and cosmetic surgery, boasting world-renowned surgeons and 43 Joint Commission International (JCI)-accredited hospitals. It provides high-quality plastic and cosmetic surgical services at affordable rates.
  • India:  Traveling to India saves medical tourists as much as 90% of the cost they would pay to have similar procedures done in the United States. India is home to top heart and orthopedic surgeons and uses cutting-edge technology to deliver quality services. Furthermore, many healthcare providers are accredited by the JCI and the National Accreditation Board for Hospitals and Healthcare Providers (NABH).
  • Singapore:  One of the most developed countries in the world, Singapore maintains a top spot in the World Health Organization’s ranking of healthcare in Asia. The country also came out tops in a 2014 Bloomberg ranking of countries with the most-efficient care systems. Medical tourists in the U.S. can save as much as 40% if they travel to Singapore for medical procedures and treatment.

Other top medical travel destinations include Turkey, Thailand, Taiwan, Mexico, Jordan, Israel, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Cuba, and Canada.


International Healthcare Accreditation

Because of variations in the standards of healthcare providers around the world, the WHO launched the World Alliance for Patient Safety in 2004. The body helps governments and hospitals in setting up and adhering to standards regarding patient-safety practices and policy, an undertaking that is becoming increasingly relevant with the massive growth of the medical tourism industry.

Several other organizations also offer international healthcare accreditation, in general determining and certifying the quality level of programs and providers in many countries. The JCI does it, so do Accreditation Canada (formerly Canadian Council on Health Services Accreditation) and QHA Trent Accreditation, all three among the best-known international healthcare accreditation organizations.

Providers and organizations in most popular medical travel destinations endeavor to obtain international accreditations so they can attract foreign patients from the U.S. and other developed nations.

When choosing healthcare providers in their preferred destination, medical tourists can use those accreditations to make their final choice. It’s also a good idea to visit Global Clinic Rating, an organization that monitors the standards and success measurements of more than 400,000 medical clinics worldwide.


Employer-Sponsored Healthcare and Medical Tourism

To help reduce the costs of employee healthcare, some U.S. employers are exploring medical travel programs. They offer incentives to employees (such as waiving out-of-pocket expenses and paying for air travel) if they decide to seek care outside the U.S., still another indicator of the growing influence and popularity of the medical tourism industry.


The Case for Medical Travel Agencies

An intermediate industry has developed to help facilitate, expedite, and navigate the various processes, legalities, and logistics that are indispensable to patients seeking healthcare abroad. Health or medical tourism providers provide services for potential tourists and the provider hospitals in top destinations. They typically make travel arrangements, provide nurse care managers for pre-travel medical care, set up appointments at foreign healthcare institutions, and help facilitate follow-up care after the patient’s return.


Setting Up a Medical Tourism Business

Before starting a medical tourism business, you should take the time to conduct due diligence. That will include weighing the potential returns the business can offer before you invest your time, money, and resources. As a medical travel agent or company, you should be able to provide medical tourists with quality, affordable healthcare with minimum discomfort between travels while making reasonable profits to sustain your business.

In every case, market needs assessment, and financial feasibility studies are a pre-requisite for all plans.

  • Analyzing the industry:  A thorough understanding of the industry is essential. First, you must become familiar with the top medical destinations for certain procedures. For instance, Spain is known for its neurosurgery, Turkey is best-known for ophthalmology, and India is the preferred destination for heart and orthopedic surgeries.  Also, a thorough knowledge of the healthcare sector at a destination is required. For instance, Costa Rica is associated with world-class plastic surgeons, and Germany is famous for its cutting-edge medical equipment. Being aware of the nature of the industry in your target destination will help you channel and orient your business better.  When starting up, it may be daunting to offer services for advanced medical procedures and fields such as heart, eye, or neurosurgery. If those fields appear to be too complicated, you could start with the ones that are easier to understand and handle, such as wellness tourism and basic dental care. As you gain knowledge and experience, you could slowly move into more-complex and invasive medical procedures.
  • Licensing, permits, and certifications: Medical tourism agents and facilitators may be asked to undergo training or licensing before they can begin practicing. Those requirements depend on the location of your business and may vary from state to state, especially in the U.S. You should visit relevant state institutions and check their official websites to determine licensing requirements, training, and certifications applicable to the locality where you want to set up your medical travel agency.  Certifications may not be mandatory, but they can help increase your credibility and differentiate your business from competitors. You can also present such certifications as proof of your credentials and professionalism when marketing your services to potential medical tourists.
  • Collaboration, a must in the medical tourism industry: The medical tourism industry lies at the intersection of tourism, travel, and medical care. As such, you must collaborate with staff from travel and tourism agencies, and with medical institutions, and maintain an extensive network of contacts ranging from embassy staff, translators and insurance providers to airlines, hotels, travel agencies and your competitors in the medical tourism industry. Such a network will enable you to receive up-to-date knowledge of and access to the resources that will help ensure the smoothness of your clients’ medical tourism trips.
  • Legal issues:  Receiving care abroad may come with unfamiliar legal issues that medical tourists are ill-equipped to handle. In some developed countries, healthcare professionals may refuse to undertake a particular procedure because of its high-risk nature and the possibility of medical malpractice lawsuits.  Although that is one of the reasons patients choose to seek care overseas, the very advantage of it (limited nature of litigation) means that patients will be unable to seek legal redress or receive adequate compensation if anything goes wrong. As such, it’s essential that medical tourists take advantage of the services of experts to assist in such areas.
  • Advisory services: Advisory services are indispensable. You can act in an advisory capacity to help guide potential medical tourists as they choose their preferred destination. Comprehensive knowledge of what to expect at top medical travel destinations is critical to your success.


And One More Consideration

The so-called “incoming market in medical tourism” continues to exceed income lost by “outgoing medical tourism” in the United States!

In January 2019 a report was published entitled “Medical Tourists: Incoming and Outgoing” alerting us to the fact that the United States is a successful recipient of medical tourism,  patients coming from abroad to visit the United States for healthcare services.

Are you a hospital or medical group that is already offering some medical services tourists are looking for?  It may be the lower cost, it may be the privacy and confidentiality it may be the reputation . . . you may be closer than you think to be able to participate in medical tourism.

Do you want to?  Please comment!

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