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American Medical Tourism: Fact vs. Fiction

Rick Johnson, for HealthLeaders Media, October 28, 2008

Those of us in the media love to report on emerging trends. It gives us a chance to tell readers something new and different. Plus, we get to look smart and offer up the prediction—often unsubstantiated and made in general terms—that whatever the trend is, you should expect it will have a major impact and become commonplace.

But what if the subject of investigation isn't much of a trend at all? Well, there's the beauty of calling something a trend; it's such a generic, subjective, and overused word that you really can't go wrong.

Find a few examples of uninsured Americans going abroad for elective surgery and presto, you've got yourself a trend.

Peter Hayes, director of associate health and wellness at Hannaford Bros. Co., a Scarborough, ME-based supermarket, told me that when he was researching whether to add a medical travel benefit, he was surprised the press coverage was mostly favorable.

I'm not so surprised. It's easier for a reporter to find an anecdote about a successful procedure than an unsuccessful one. In many cases, I suspect these journalists got their interviews with medical travel patients through international hospitals or medical travel facilitators. Plus, the medical travel story still has a newness about it that will appeal to readers, so no need to get bogged down with facts that don't support the claim that droves of Americans are willing to leave the country for care.

Not that I can blame reporters for not digging deeper into the medical travel trend. After all, the quantitative research on outbound medical travel is hard to come by and the few recent studies in circulation don't exactly mesh.

  • The Deloitte Center for Health Solutions estimates that 750,000 Americans traveled abroad for care in 2007.
  • McKinsey & Company puts the number of outbound medical travel at no more than 85,000 inpatients.
  • The latest edition of Patients Beyond Borders says last year more than 180,000 Americans traveled overseas for care.

On the other hand, it is just as easy for medical travel's detractors in the U.S. to dismiss talk of a growing trend as mere rhetoric and exaggeration. A recent American Medical News story dismisses the medical travel trend out of hand, pointing to the medical travel facilitator Healthplace America as a sign that those who would promote outbound medical tourism in the U.S. are moving on to other ventures.

But the detractors might have a point. Consider that Hannaford hasn't reported sending a single employee to Singapore for care, but has managed to use the medical travel benefit to get counter-offers from U.S. providers.

There are real trends, of course, hidden behind all the hype. Foremost, providers in South America, Asia, and the Middle East really are developing healthcare organizations that rival U.S. healthcare in terms of quality, value, and experience. I'm just not yet convinced that the outbound travel trend is as prevalent as some with obvious agendas would have us believe. And given today's global economic downturn, I don't think we'll see a major shake-up in the way American's get healthcare anytime soon.


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