More Americans than ever are traveling abroad for medical treatment, according to a study released by the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, a Washington, DC-based organization that researches health care and public health-related issues.
Approximately 750,000 Americans traveled abroad for medical care in 2007, and as many as six million will have received health care outside the United States by 2010, the study reports.
‘Savings Are Huge’
“People are traveling overseas to get medical care for up to 90 percent less [cost], but at the same time they do not sacrifice quality,” said Jonathan Edelheit, president of the Medical Tourism Association, a Florida-based nonprofit dedicated to promoting quality international health care.
“The savings are huge,” Edelheit said.
Advocates of medical tourism say it gives consumers more choice in and control of their health care, offers better care at lower prices, and pushes American health care providers by creating competition.
More Patient Control
“I think it’s the ultimate consumer-driven tool because the patient is making an informed decision on where they go for care based on quality and price,” Edelheit said.
The increase in medical travel is causing patients to search diligently for information about the quality and outcome of the treatment they will receive, Edelheit said. “In part, they do it because they’re traveling abroad, but they are becoming more involved in their health care.”
More Info, Accreditation
In June 2008 the American Medical Association approved guidelines for U.S. residents traveling abroad to receive medical care and for employers considering covering overseas care.
In addition, the Joint Commission, a nonprofit organization that independently accredits and certifies thousands of health care providers in the United States, has established an international branch, the Joint Commission International, which does the same for hospitals around the world.
Edelheit said several big insurance companies and employers are encouraging medical tourism and even offering rewards for those who choose it, because they realize it lowers costs without compromising quality.
‘More Personalized Care’
“The Americans who are coming back are talking about what an incredible experience they had,” Edelheit said. “They were treated like kings or queens. They were having an experience you can’t get in U.S. hospitals any more. You get a lot more personalized care overseas.”
Many foreign hospitals boast higher nurse-to-patient ratios, which results in fewer infections, more patient attention, and fewer deaths, Edelheit said. Also, patients can often get a procedure or a prescription not yet available in the United States.
In addition, some procedures only recently available in the United States have been practiced for years abroad. “For example,” Edelheit said, “many U.S. patients have opted to get hip resurfacing, only recently approved domestically, by a foreign doctor who has vastly more experience performing it.”
Rising U.S. Prices Contribute
More people are engaging in medical tourism because of rising health care prices in the United States, said Greg Scandlen, director of Consumers for Health Care Choices at The Heartland Institute.
“As more and more people have out-of-pocket responsibility, they’re looking around for the best deal, and out-of-country services are an incredibly good deal if you’re willing to travel,” Scandlen said.
According to Scandlen, the rise in medical tourism is cause for alarm among some domestic health care providers, and it will end up forcing them to improve their services.
“I’d compare this to the introduction of Volkswagens and Toyotas, what that did to American [automotive] manufacturers,” Scandlen said. “It’s showing another way of doing business that the automakers in the United States were just too indifferent to adopt, so competition had to come from somewhere. It came from overseas.”
U.S. Model ‘Isn’t Working’
“The American hospital model simply isn’t working well anymore, so patients will find someplace else,” Scandlen continued. “Competition will assert itself, like it or not. If American hospitals don’t relearn how to run their businesses based on some of the ideas that are coming from overseas, they will go the way of the automakers.”
Scandlen said American health care providers are especially concerned because much of their most-lucrative business is going overseas. He said the amount of profitability being exported far exceeds the number of people going abroad.
John R. Graham, director of health care policy at the Pacific Research Institute, agreed. “Medical tourism is a great opportunity to reduce U.S. health spending and allow more Americans to get high-quality care abroad,” he noted.
Could Cause Rethinking
“U.S. hospitals have very high cost structures,” said Graham, “largely caused by government regulation that inhibits competition and specialization, requiring general hospitals to be all things to all people. In the long run, as their ‘profitable’ operations disappear overseas, American hospitals will face a crisis that will require policymakers to rethink how they organize the health care safety net.”
“Quality and patient protections vary widely in other countries, just like they do within the United States,” said Michael Cannon, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. “What we don’t get in the United States is price competition, but that can’t last forever, particularly with foreign providers offering comparable quality at a lower cost.
“Medical tourism can only grow,” Cannon added. “And that’s a good thing.”
For more information …
“Medical Tourism: Emerging Phenomenon in Health Care Industry,” Deloitte Center for Health Solutions: http://www.deloitte.com/dtt/cda/doc/content/us_chs_MedicalTourism