Medical Tourism

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Rosalind McLymontWe read so often of heads of state, their families and other well-to-do individuals in Africa who travel to developed countries for medical treatment that we may be inclined to think that the term “medical tourism” was invented for Africans.

These days, the United States is experiencing its own tsunami of medical travelers bound, of all places, for developing countries, including South Africa. Faced with a system dogged by exorbitant costs, an over-emphasis on disease care, too-little attention to prevention and insurance rather than actual health as the great decision-maker, more Americans are leaving the country for medical procedures.

By some estimates, six million Americans travel abroad each year for simple, complex and alternative procedures. Jaws dropped when Hannaford Bros. Co., a supermarket chain in Maine, announced in 2008 that it would be shipping its employees to Singapore for knee and hip replacements, saving the company up to 70 percent on costs.

With a $20 billion market that is expected to reach $100 billion by 2012, medical tourism is one of the fastest-growing segments of the health-care industry. It even has a trade group, the Medical Tourism Association, which counts among its members the top international hospitals, health-care providers, medical travel facilitators and insurance companies     

Ironically, cost is the least-cited reason why Americans travel abroad for medical reasons. According to a May 2008 McKinsey & Co. report, 40 percent of U.S. medical travelers seek advanced technology, 32 percent seek better health care, 15 percent seek faster medical services and only 9 percent seek lower costs. Most of these travelers undergo dental, cosmetic, orthopedic and cardiovascular procedures.

They prefer Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama for dental services or cosmetic surgeries because of their proximity; and Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore) and India for orthopedic and cardiac cases because of the high quality of their health-care infrastructure and the presence of several U.S.-accredited hospitals and physicians. Other popular destinations are Brazil for cosmetic surgery, Argentina and Hungary for dental work and cosmetic surgery, and South Africa for cosmetic surgery. Depending on the procedure, costs overseas range from 20 percent to 70 percent less than U.S. costs. Alternative medicine can be obtained in Malaysia for 25 percent of the U.S. cost, for example.

Insurance companies know a good thing when they see it. BasicPlus Health Insurance of Roswell, Ga., recently partnered with Companion Global Healthcare Inc. of Columbia, S.C., to include a network of overseas hospitals in its FlexMed (for employers) and BasicPlus (for individuals) limited benefit plans. Under their agreement, enrollees in either of the two plans may seek surgery and other covered services at Companion Global Healthcare’s network of 26 U.S.-accredited hospitals worldwide, where rates are lower than those typically charged in the United States.

FlexMed and BasicPlus members treated overseas receive Companion Global Healthcare’s concierge medical travel services, including assistance with scheduling appointments, arranging travel, case management and follow-up care in the United States. Companion Global Healthcare also serves uninsured individuals, and contracts with insurance companies and employer groups that wish to include an overseas option in their benefit plans.

Some industries just evolve without legislated reform.