Many hospitals and other players in the healthcare industry have been taking careful note of the increasing talk of "medical tourism" and "medical travel," often with an eye on strategic investments related to what is apparently a fast-growing market. With healthcare organizations under pressure to enhance payor mix, and facing tough competition for patients, it is reasonable to ask, "why not bring in distant patients who are willing to travel to receive care?"
But medical tourism may not be the financial panacea that cash-strapped hospitals envision. Any organization factoring medical tourism into their strategic plans should take a close look at what's actually happening in this nebulous and challenging market. In fact, their best opportunities may lie in helping less-developed nations develop their own healthcare capacity to obviate the need for their citizens to obtain world-class healthcare outside of their borders. This is a classic win-win scenario for both the hospital helping build the medical infrastructure and expertise and the country receiving this assistance.
The unclear thinking about medical tourism and travel starts with what the terms actually mean. Let's first separate inbound and outbound travel, from a U.S. provider's point of view. Outbound medical tourism or travel typically involves a U.S.-based patient taking a trip overseas to receive a treatment — usually one that's expensive here but may be substantially less so at the destination. Cosmetic surgery, hip replacement, even cardiac surgery are among the procedures that U.S. patients have traveled to receive. The motivation is generally price: Some hospitals in some countries have, in one way or another, gained a reputation for performing quality work at relatively low cost. For patients facing an expensive elective procedure not covered by their insurance plans, traveling to a low-cost provider overseas can indeed provide significant savings.
Since some of these hospitals are in regions that also have tourist appeal to international travelers, patients may actually be tempted to put together a package deal, with the savings on the procedure effectively subsidizing the tourism. The tourism might even be a major motivation for the trip. In such cases, it seems fair to refer the phenomenon as "medical tourism." Those cases for which the medical procedure is more or less the sole motivation for the trip, on the other hand, can more reasonably be lumped under "medical travel." Not everyone makes this sort of differentiation — in fact, the industry is distressingly inconsistent in defining the terms, when it bothers to define them at all — but the different motivations make for a potentially useful distinction.