New Frontiers: Medical tourism brings potential for big business but poses big questions

More patients every year are traveling outside of the U.S. in search of lower health bills and treatments that might be unavailable to them at home.

The Deloitte Center for Health Solutions estimates that 750,000 Americans went to another country for treatment in 2007, and researchers there conclude that the industry could grow by 20 percent a year, with as many as 1.6 million U.S. residents taking these trips by 2012. Researchers caution that exact numbers are essentially unattainable, however, because estimates are largely based on self-reported figures that can’t be verified.

But with medical tourism on the rise, more and more doctors are faced with the choice of whether or not to get involved. Those who do will have to grapple with important insurance and legal questions, experts say.

Popular Procedures

Most patients are traveling to India, Singapore and Thailand, where they can get the most bang for their bucks and find the most medical facilities that are accredited by the Joint Commission International, according to Paul Keckley, PhD, executive director of the Deloitte Center. Most procedures involve savings of 50 to 70 percent, even after airfare, hotel and other travel costs are considered, Dr. Keckley said.

A survey by the Deloitte Center found that 3 percent of respondents said they’d traveled outside the U.S. to consult with a doctor or receive treatment within the last 24 months. Nine percent said they would likely go abroad for a necessary surgical procedure if they could save at least 50 percent, but 67 percent said they would not be likely to do so.

A recent survey of Americans who had considered medical travel, conducted by the Texas-based Center for Medical Tourism Research (CMTR), found that 250 of the 1,821 respondents (13 percent) had traveled abroad for health care.

The most popular treatments sought abroad are not big-ticket procedures like open-heart surgeries and hip replacements, but are instead high-volume outpatient procedures, Dr. Keckley said. How well those kinds of procedures continue to catch on will determine how big the industry will get, he said. “It will be the ability of these host institutions to package products for these short-stay outpatient procedures, whether they’re cosmetic, dental … orthopedic, ENT or others that are at least 30 percent lower in out-of-pocket costs than U.S.-based products,” he said.

Less than 10 percent of the business involves otolaryngology procedures, said Rudy Rupak, who in 2002 founded PlanetHospital, which claims to be the first medical tourism “intermediary” company created to arrange medical trips for patients. According to Rupak, the most common ENT procedures patients seek abroad are laryngectomy, septoplasty, sinus surgery and sleep apnea treatment.