Special Report From Costa Rica: The Drive Behind Medical Tourism

Published May 31, 2016

As more individuals in need of expensive medical treatments seek out new ways to obtain quality care at a reduced price, the growth of medical tourism in countries such as Thailand, India, Mexico, and Costa Rica is creating a new global marketplace for obtaining care.

At a medical tourism conference held in April in Costa Rica’s capital, San Jose, Dr. Federico Hernandez, the Costa Rican representative for the Pan American Health Organization, explained the drive behind medical tourism and the opportunities it offers consumers.

“When people look to medical tourism it is usually because of a lack of services in their country of origin. They are looking for high-tech and specialized procedures which require special equipment and human resources. They also look to the cost compared to quality,” Hernandez said.

Meeting Market Demands

Tom O’Hara, president of Surgical Trip, an international network of hospitals and facilities that arranges for group care, explained avenues toward medical tourism are opening because companies like his work directly with employers and insurers and will meet the demands of an aging U.S. population. 

“The demand for specific treatments, such as orthopedic surgeries, will increase in number as the Baby Boomers age. A recent study released at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons estimates that [the number of] knee replacement surgeries over the next 25 years will grow by 673 percent in the United States,” says O’Hara.

“Combine that with a shortage of surgeons in the United States, and the demand for medical tourism is bound to increase,” he added.

There are five basic demand lines for medical tourism, Hernandez explains.

“The first is services of high specialization, like treatment of diseases that requires top of the line tech or specialized inventions. Second is catering to individuals looking for elective services. Third is aesthetic surgery. Fourth are the services of mental health that are associated with behavior issues,” said Hernandez. “Fifth and finally, we cater to the group of individuals who are increasingly interested in health services related to promotion and maintenance of health.”

Ease of Travel

Those who are already living away from their home country may find it cheaper to travel abroad for medical care, Hernandez says.

However, he noted, “Cultural aspects of people living abroad affect their medical decisions, and often they prefer to go back to their country of origin because of things like language, trust, and ease of transportation,” said Hernandez.

Thus people in other Central American countries may prefer to travel to a neighboring country for medical services, such as Costa Rica.

Confidence Needed

According to Dr. Kenneth Wells, president of ALKEN, a professional services firm specializing in a full-range of health care services, Americans must be confident in what they’re getting before traveling to another country for medical procedures.

“Previous travel is a likely indicator of future travel. The destination country’s culture and language are important to Americans. They are also looking for American physicians and new medical technology and procedures,” Wells said.

Growth in Accredited Hospitals

The growth in accredited hospitals in recent years is a sign of the expanding demand for medical tourism, says David Boucher, president of Companion Global Health Care, a medical tourism facilitator.

“Since 2006, the growth in the number of Joint Commission International (JCI) accredited hospitals increased from 80 to 255. In Costa Rica it increased from zero to three,” Boucher said. “Quality concerns of crossing the border for care are fading.”

Boucher said awareness of availability is increasing.

“A much higher percentage of employer benefits executives understand medical tourism now versus just a year ago,” Boucher said. “Various tourism packages have been created by companies specifically to cater to patients, such as utilizing Costa Rica’s well-known dental care.”

Employer Interested

Chad Holloway, president of Global Health Solutions, an international health care consulting company, pointed to a January 2010 survey by the University of Incarnate Word Center for Medical Tourism in Texas, which found 60 percent of employee benefit decision makers would support employees engaging in medical tourism.

“Self-insured employers present the greatest opportunity for Latin American health care providers to unite and combine resources and efforts to market their clinical quality and cost effectiveness with the overall value of offering health care benefits in Latin America as part of their employee and retiree health insurance plans,” Holloway said.

Holloway thinks demand for medical tourism will grow as costs rise in the United States.

“Hospital pricing is better than the pricing in U.S. hospitals, plus in Costa Rica our hospitals’ quality is equal to or better than the quality in U.S. hospitals,” Holloway said. “The challenge is effectively using limited resources to penetrate the U.S. market, to make this known and create strategic partnerships.”

‘Automatic Real Savings’

Jonathan Edelheit, CEO of the Medical Tourism Association, says the medical tourism model will thrive in the wake of the U.S. economic recession.

“Millions of Americans have been laid off and are without health insurance. At the same time, employers are hurting,” Edelheit said. “For self-funded employers, this is a huge opportunity because the money they save goes in their pocket. When people use medical tourism, they get automatic real savings.”

“Medical tourism really makes people consumers of their health care,” adds Edelheit.

Sarah McIntosh ([email protected]) teaches constitutional law and American politics at Wichita State University in Kansas.