Outsourcing of manufacturing and services is a reality of today’s globalization. Medical treatment appears to be next on the outsourcing list as we are now seeing vigorous growth in the number of patients traveling across national borders for healthcare purposes. The term “medical tourism” is loosely used for outsourced services including dentistry, weight loss, cosmetic and major surgery, and advanced therapies such as organ transplants.
A 2008 Deloitte report indicated that 750,000 Americans went abroad for medical treatment in 2007, and it projected 10-fold growth over the next decade. A 2009 United Nations Asia Pacific report estimated that medical tourism is currently worth about $40 billion (including the traditional tourism component).
The growth of international patient care (IPC) is driven by several factors, chiefly high medical costs and delays in getting timely treatment in patients’ home countries. The number of medical centers around the world that provide high-quality treatments at considerably lower cost without lengthy delays is proliferating. In fact, it is now possible to schedule a surgical procedure such as a heart-valve or hip replacement abroad that may be a fraction of the cost of what it is in the U.S.
The benefits of IPC must be weighed against the significant pitfalls including spotty regulation, inconsistent liability laws, and the likelihood that the patient will be responsible for the costs in the absence of insurance reimbursement.
The emerging IPC industry has three principal components: a specialized travel company that seeks to match patient needs with the capabilities of foreign medical centers and makes the necessary travel arrangements; a medical center that has the appropriate facilities and skilled medical teams; and certification by a recognized accreditation organization, in particular the Joint Commission International (JCI). This accreditation assures patients that the quality of medical care is comparable to that offered in recognized hospitals in the U.S. and EU.
A 2008 McKinsey report indicated that 40% of international patients are seeking the most advanced treatments, while 32% are looking for a higher level of care than available at home. While much of the demand for IPC comes from the U.S. and the EU, there is a rapidly expanding coterie of affluent patients from Asia and the Middle East seeking these services.
Asia has seen a rapid increase in IPC triggered in part by the Asian economic crisis of 1997 and by government efforts to modernize healthcare systems. Most Asian countries have government-provided healthcare as well as private hospitals. The economic crisis devastated healthcare budgets and decreased the number of patients at private hospitals. Many of these private hospitals are now seeking foreign patients to bring in much-needed revenue.