Medical Tourism, separating facts from fiction

by Michael Halasy Practicing Emergency Medicine PA, Health Policy Analyst, and Health Services Researcher

Medical Tourism, separating facts from fiction

One of the greatest myths that I hear on a somewhat regular basis, centers around the belief that the US must have one of the greatest health systems in the world, because everyone comes here for their care. Well, let’s examine that shall we?

As with many things, reality is a little different from the mythology.

According to the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions and Health-tourism.com, there will be roughly 561,000 inbound medical tourists to the United States by 2017….Conversely, 750,000 Americans traveled to foreign countries in 2007, and this grew to between 1.1 and 1.3 million outbound tourists in 2008. Spending on healthcare in foreign countries was estimated to be 20 billion dollars in 2008.

Estimates for growth demonstrate a consistent 35% growth in outbound medical tourism annually. Projections indicate that roughly 1.6-2.5 million Americans will travel abroad in 2012, and spending could reach 100 billion dollars. That’s right, 100 billion US dollars being spent in foreign countries for healthcare such as elective surgeries, complicated dental surgery, plastic surgery, and even coronary bypass surgery.

Where are they going?

According to survey results:

Thailand, with one hospital in Bangkok taking care of 64,000 US patients in 2006.
Singapore
Latin America
Mexico
Malaysia
India

Of these, India has the greatest potential for growth.

A legitimate question revolves around what reasons these patients are traveling for. Predictably, a lack of health insurance had a high correlation with travel for services. Surprisingly though, only 9% of patients who were surveyed listed price as the primary factor in their decision.

An entire industry is springing up to support this, and companies are now offering packages, and entering into arrangements with foreign hospitals.

What may or may not come as a surprise to many, is that, as the Deloitte report lists, there are many American Health Insurance companies that are entering into pilot studies sending American patients to foreign hospitals for treatment.

Some examples include:

Anthem BC/BS in Wisconsin (700 group members initially, being sent to India for treatment)

United Group in Florida (Promoting tourism to India and Thailand to 200,000 members)

BC/BS of South Carolina (Promoting tourism to Thailand)

So while there are foreign citizens who come to the US for treatment every year, it pales in comparison to the number of American citizens traveling elsewhere.

(Rdan here…One of the throw away lines about the where US Healthcare stood in the scheme of things is that Canadians come over the boarder for treatment, which is characterized as a comment on the Canadian healthcare system. No numbers are ever provided even when requested…maybe it is more complex than many are willing to deal with)

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