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AMA Protects Patients Ahead of Protectionists

Rick Johnson, for HealthLeaders Media, June 24, 2008

The American Medical Association's new policy on medical travel puts the rights of patients ahead of American physician protectionism. That's good news for global hospitals, payers, employers, medical travel companies, and most of all patients.

I spoke last week with J. James Rohack, MD, a cardiologist from Bryan, TX, and the new president-elect of the AMA. He says some members were concerned that employers and insurers were forcing patients into medical tourism. In fact, according to a report on the association's Web site, the New York delegation last year called on the AMA to "seek legislation to prevent insurance companies from incentivizing subscribers in this country to have to go overseas for medical treatment that could be provided locally."

With a healthy dose of common sense, the AMA didn't buy the rhetoric of medical protectionism and instead adopted a policy that respects the patient's right to choose a healthcare provider, whether it's down the block or in Bangkok.

"One of the excuses [protectionists] are using is that insurers are forcing patients to go overseas, which is an absolute lie," says Jonathan Edelheit, president of the Medical Tourism Association. Most insurers that offer patients incentives for medical travel are not drastically changing plan designs; they're simply waiving deductibles and coinsurance and then paying for travel expenses, he adds.

The irony is that the protectionists are the ones attempting to limit choice and force patients to pay the higher price for U.S. healthcare. Even if an employer or insurer offers a patient a financial incentive beyond waiving coinsurance and deductibles, it wouldn't amount to forced medical travel.

Rohack points out that the policy is meant to educate patients about things like the risks associated with traveling with a medical condition, legal rights abroad, and how to identify qualified healthcare providers. In addition, the AMA says follow-up care should be coordinated prior to travel. These are measures any right-thinking healthcare provider would want patients to take before they commit to medical travel.

In fact, the International Medical Travel Association also applauded the AMA's guidelines in a prepared statement and urged industry stakeholders to continue to cooperate on standards for global medical care.

Not long ago, I wrote that American providers need to get over the fact that healthcare globalization is here and decide whether medical travel is an opportunity to collaborate or a threat that they must compete against. Pushing for legislation against this emerging movement is just a wasted effort. The AMA correctly diagnosed this, but the next step remains.

If Americans continue to seek high-value healthcare from global destination hospitals, as many industry analysts predict, how can providers from across nations create incentives that promote cooperation in the best interest of these patients?


Rick Johnson is senior online editor of HealthLeaders Media. He may be reached at rjohnson@healthleadersmedia.com.
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