Americans look abroad to save on health care; Medical tourism could jump tenfold in next decade

by Linda A. Johnson ,  San Francisco Chronicle | 2008-08-03

Consumers increasingly are trying alternatives to their local hospitals and doctors, from going abroad for less-costly surgery to seeking quick, basic care at new clinics in drugstores and discounters, experts say.

The number of people heading abroad for "medical tourism" could jump tenfold in the next decade, to nearly 16 million Americans a year seeking cheaper knee and hip replacements, nose jobs, prostate and shoulder surgery, and even heart bypasses, according to a forecast by health care consultants at the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions.

Meanwhile, the number of retail clinics operating in pharmacies, big-box and discount stores and supermarkets has jumped from about 200 in 2006 to nearly 1,000 last month, according to a second report from the Deloitte center.

While growth is slowing and some early players funded by venture capitalists have folded or been bought out, major retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., CVS Caremark Corp. and Walgreen Co. have announced plans to open hundreds more clinics in their stores in the next few years.

The two reports show potential big savings for U.S. consumers - and probably their health insurers - would come at the cost of American hospitals and doctors losing billions of dollars a year in revenue.

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