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New Trend: Medical Tourism?
I'm going to post an article here about a new trend in travel because I think it's fascinating - "Medical Tourism" or folks who escape the costs of medical are here to travel to countries where the cost is far cheaper. The question, of course is quality of care, but the article suggests that some countries have come far in their quality of care.
Medical tourism: The next niche market?
By Casey Kittrell
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine tore the meniscus cartilage in his right knee while playing soccer. Like me, he's a freelance writer with basic health insurance.
The surgery he needed would cost about $5,000, and he would pay much of that before meeting his deductible. Unlike me, he spends several months a year in India, where his wife studies the linguistics of a little-known tribe in the Himalaya foothills.
Dan had his operation at a sports medicine clinic in Austin, Texas. It went very well. What Dan didn't know was that he could have had the operation at Indraprastha Apollo Hospital in New Delhi and saved himself a lot of money.
”I just didn’t know that was an option then,” he later told me. “The regular hospitals in India are beyond horrifying.”
Indraprastha Apollo, however, is a corporate hospital that serves private customers rather than the general public. It’s staffed with first-rate specialists who could have treated Dan for about $1,300. That’s a fortune for most Indians, but it’s a relative bargain in the high-priced world of private health care to which most U.S. citizens are accustomed.
Indeed, escalating health care costs in the U.S. may be a boon for the travel industry. Every year, thousands visit countries such as India, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and South Africa for everything from liposuction to liver transplants.
As many as 150,000 “medical tourists” are reported to have visited India in 2002. The Indian state of Maharashtra (home to Mumbai, aka Bombay) formed the Medical Tourism Council (MTC) of Maharashtra earlier this year.
The Singapore Tourism Board estimates some 270,000 medical tourists are expected to visit Singapore in 2004 and spend $500 million in Singapore dollars (nearly $300 million U.S. dollars). Moreover, some estimates suggest medical tourism could be a $2 billion business in India by 2012.
A question of cost
Cost, of course, is what drives this growing segment of the travel industry.
According to the MTC and other sources, heart surgery at a private hospital in India costs about one-fifth of what it does in the U.S. Even patients who have the health insurance to pay for heart surgery find a need to go overseas for cosmetic procedures, which usually are not covered by insurance.
For instance, when the rand was trading at a record low in 2001, South African agents started selling “scalpel and safari” tours to adventure travelers who also were interested in plastic surgery.
For Lorraine Melvill, founder of Cape Town-based Surgeon and Safari, the trend helped grow her company into a multimillion-dollar business.
Surgeon and Safari arranges cosmetic, plastic and reconstructive surgery, dental procedures and other treatments as well as accommodations in top hotels such as the Mount Nelson.
After convalescing in luxury, customers can extend their stay in South Africa with a visit to upscale game lodges in the country’s best-known wildlife parks. In many cases, the cost of the entire package is less than the cost of the surgery alone in the U.S.
Similar packages are available through companies in Thailand and Malaysia.
While cost may be what drives medical tourism, care is what makes it a bargain. Doctors in South Africa, India and other developing countries often study medicine in English, making it easy for them to communicate with U.S. patients. Many of these doctors have done postgraduate work in the U.S., Canada, U.K. or Australia.
Their facilities are built with private money to international standards, but the local cost of labor and raw materials are a fraction of what they are in the U.S.
The result is a growing group of first-world hospitals in third-world countries. Indraprastha Apollo, for instance, claims a 98.5% success rate with heart operations. Wockhardt Hospital in Bangalore, India, is approved by U.S. insurance company Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Concerns for agents
Despite attractive costs and quality of care, there are some concerns for agents interested in selling medical tourism.
The first is liability. Steve Levin, of travel agent-insurer the Berkely Group, said, “If the agency is not involved in the medicine side of such a trip, we’ll still insure them.
”But if they take money for the foreign doctors, then we wouldn’t write it [the errors-and-omissions policy] at all. You can’t file a malpractice suit against a foreign doctor, but you can sue the travel agent who sent you to him.”
So for now, agents should stick to arranging flights, accommodations and sightseeing and leave the medical procedures to local operators.
That, of course, sets up the second hurdle in selling medical tourism: If you can’t legally vouch for the local doctor, how do you convince clients to travel halfway around the world to let someone they’ve never met perform surgery?
There’s no easy answer for this, but the statistics and testimony of previous medical tourists provide some support. The local hospital or clinic should also provide information to answer all of the client’s questions and allay much of the fear.
Time, money and need
Retiring baby boomers, who have the time and money for travel and the need for health care, are good candidates for medical tourism. Even young, healthy, insured U.S. citizens (provided they like to travel) can take advantage of quality, low-cost care offered in other countries.
At Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok, a patient in for a checkup might get a series of blood tests, an electrocardiogram, an ultrasound and other exams — for less than $100.
As appealing as quality, affordable health care may be, medical tourism is also booming because it’s still tourism. It presents an opportunity to justify the kind of long-distance foreign travel to which many clients are hesitant to commit.
Or, to put it simply, if you’re flying halfway around the world, you might as well see the sights while you’re there.