For some patients considering medical travel, the headaches surrounding the trip may outweigh the benefits:
At least one company, Medtral New Zealand, tries to allay these fears by helping consumers through every step in the process. Prospective patients are assigned a personal "International Patient Coordinator" who helps organize travel, treatment, and care— including help obtaining a medical visa, consultations, accommodations, and arrangements for aftercare in the country.
"We believe that because of the alignment, both medically and culturally, with the U.S. that this is something that will appeal to Americans who are seeking high quality elective surgery that is at a price they can afford," says Edward Watson, MD, Medtral New Zealand's executive chairman and director.
Watson estimates New Zealand treats 500-600 patients from abroad annually, but it could grow well into the thousands if Medtral does its job.
"For patients who are looking for lower-cost, high quality procedures, this would fit them because what we say is that the quality will be as good if not better than the quality in the United States, for a price which is about 15%-20% of the cost in the U.S.," Watson says.
To get the word out, Watson says Medtral will increasingly use its previous customers to serve as spokespeople to talk to other Americans who are considering medical travel to New Zealand. Medtral also provides virtual tours of hospitals and boasts surgeons who are willing to communicate directly with prospective patients about what they can expect.
Medtral is also working with U.S. insurers to get patients from abroad.
"We're in discussion with health insurers around the country about them offering an option of medical travel for their existing clients, as well as offering a lower premium product to attract new customers and obviously who do not currently have health insurance," Watson says.
Medtral's hands-on approach to helping consumers with medical travel begins with an extensive screening process. Medtral representatives ask potential medical travelers detailed questions, examine their diagnostic tests, and generally make sure they need an operation. The litigious nature of the United States leads to doctors practicing defensive medicine, and in turn adds to the significant costs of healthcare, Watson says.
"We are flabbergasted in certain areas, of how many patients there are that have been offered surgery in the U.S. and our surgeons in New Zealand say frankly, 'they don't need an operation,'" he says.
Watson says the New Zealand medical travel industry currently focuses primarily on cardiac and orthopedic procedures, but New Zealand is researching which services would prove most lucrative, including live donor renal transplantation.
"The reason being the variance between the cost in the U.S. for live donor renal transplantation and what we can do it for in New Zealand is so huge, that there must be a market even if that market is small," Watson says. "With 76,000 Americans on the waiting list for renal transplantation, there is obviously a sizable need there as well."
All of the hospitals Medtral uses are accredited by Quality Health New Zealand, which uses quality standards based on those used in Australia and Canada. QHNZ itself is accredited by the worldwide umbrella organization, the International Society for Quality in Healthcare. ISQua is the same organization responsible for accrediting the Joint Commission International.
Watson credits JCI for its marketing efforts, because that is what many Americans looking for medical travel options base their opinions on. But when Americans choose hospitals simply because of JCI, they are basically ignoring all other members of ISQua, Watson says.
"They all have the same standards, so why not choose an ISQua member accreditation body instead of choosing just JCI?" he asks.
He notes, however, that accreditation should be only part of what potential medical travel patients consider when choosing a provider. Patients need to think about how the provider fits with their cultural, as well as medical, needs, and if the provider has processes in place if something goes wrong. Safety aspects both inside and out of the hospital should be considered as well, he says.
"The important thing for the consumer is quality, there are no two-ways about it," Watson says. "You want it to be like it is back home, but hopefully less expensive. And I think those things, more than the accreditation of the hospitals, are probably more important to get across to the consumers."
Watson is confident that with effective marketing, medical travel to New Zealand could become a booming business—especially if U.S. companies that pay for their employees' health plans realize the savings they could achieve.
After going through the current economic crisis, these U.S. companies will be wary and looking for more ways to reduce expenditures—one of the biggest being healthcare, Watson says. By offering a package to New Zealand that covers travel, the procedure, and recovery time at a significant savings, Watson says it will be hard for companies to turn it down.
"Once America has got over the shock of what they are going through and innovation starts to come to the fore again, we believe that innovative companies will see this as a viable option," Watson says.