Low-cost foreign care begins to take offBy Susan Deutschle
Business First of Columbus
Business First of Columbus
Updated: 8:00 p.m. ET July 29, 2007
There’s a quiet revolution slowly building momentum in the health-care industry that could potentially lower the cost of employer-sponsored medical plans over the next decade. A new phenomenon called medical tourism confirms that globalization is finally affecting the health-care industry.
A growing number of uninsured and under-insured medical patients are traveling to foreign countries for services and procedures that are significantly less expensive than what’s charged by American hospitals and clinics. This new competition has some experts predicting that natural market forces will eventually cut costs here.
“I don’t think medical tourism is a near-term solution to the health-care problem in America, but I do believe this won’t be seen as a novelty in another five to 10 years,” said Robert DeWitt, a health-care attorney with Columbus-based Squire Sanders & Dempsey LLP. “Employers could end up saving a lot of money once this catches on more.”
It’s called medical tourism because a patient can receive medical care while experiencing the excitement and adventure of traveling to an exotic locale – although critics are more likely to characterize it as an opportunity to have an operation and witness regime change at the same time…
…”The U.S. accounts for one-third of health-care spending globally, but ranks 37th in quality of care. That’s not a hard record to beat,” DeWitt said.
The potential market for medical tourism is staggering in light of the fact that more than 15 percent of Americans are uninsured, according to 2005 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s almost 45 million prospective tourists from one country, and doesn’t include the millions of underinsured people who have minimal coverage with high deductibles.
Josef Woodman, the author of a medical tourism guidebook, “Patients Beyond Borders,” estimates that more than 150,000 Americans traveled to foreign countries for medical care last year. He expects that number to double in 2007.
Another author, David Hancock, who wrote “The Complete Medical Tourist,” estimates global medical tourism will evolve into a $40 billion-a-year industry by 2010…
…Wall says that there isn’t a lot of buzz yet about medical tourism among his health-care colleagues.
“But physicians certainly aren’t immune to worrying about competition,” Wall said.
Some employers and health plans are already offering attractive incentives to patients who accept treatment overseas, including cash rewards, first-class round-trip airfare and recuperative stays at luxury resorts. Blue Cross/Blue Shield of South Carolina, for example, now covers treatments provided by a hospital in Bangkok, Thailand.
DeWitt says that progressive American health-care organizations are looking at ways to engage in the concept.
“Some are expanding their operations to other countries, and others are trying to affiliate with foreign hospitals,” DeWitt said.
There are still a lot of issues to be sorted out before medical tourism becomes mainstream, including legal matters such as liability and coordination of care for chronic cases.
“It’s a major paradigm shift, that’s for sure,” Wall said.
© 2007 Business First of Columbus