Doing the numbers on medical tourism - is it worth it?

by Carol Lloyd ,  San Francisco Chronicle | 2009-01-04

What with the glories of the new, new economy, it's easy to imagine consigning "health and fitness" to the ash heap of personal history. Remember when we could afford yoga and Pilates? Or when we didn't price-shop for vitamins?

During rough economic times, big-ticket treatments not covered by insurance pose an even greater challenge. If you need knee surgery, or back rehab, or God forbid, the dental nightmare my husband faced last year - two crowns, two fillings and two root canals to the tune of $3,700 - it may be time to think selfishly, act globally and consider the benefits of medical travel.

Patients have been crisscrossing the globe in search of better, cheaper and more expedient health care for centuries. Legend has it that ancient Greeks traveled to the coastal city of Epidaurus for cures. Twenty years ago, the phrase "medical tourism" generally evoked images of bargain-basement boob jobs, not state-of-the-art heart surgery. But in the past few years, increasing numbers of Americans (along with Canadians and Europeans weary of long waiting periods) have begun globetrotting for pricey procedures.

With more countries - from Singapore to South Korea - building modern hospitals catering to First-World patients and accreditation organizations vetting them for quality, the industry is developing the standards and protocols that will allow medical tourism to go mainstream.

"For a long time, some people said it was just a fad," says Melissa Skelton with the Medical Tourism Association, a nonprofit organization that sponsors the Medical Travel Congress and publishes Medical Tourism Magazine. "Now with the economy and the credit crisis, more people are waking up and paying attention."

Indeed, for the 47 million uninsured Americans, boarding a plane to see the doctor already offers an irresistible two-for-one: travel the world and save money. But if insurance companies and employers embrace and incentivize medical outsourcing, the profile of the medical tourist will change. Joining the armies of un- and under-insured Americans will be fully insured patients who are getting extra perks to cross borders for treatment.

A recent study by Deloitte Center for Health Solutions concluded that the number of Americans traveling for medical care will soar: from 750,000 last year to 6 million in 2010. Although some experts question that prediction, most agree that medical tourism has the potential to transform the way Americans access health care.

"I'm not sure the numbers will rise that fast, but it's growing," said Patricia Look, a benefits and compensation analyst with J. J. Keller & Associates, whose recent white paper explored the rise of institution-sponsored medical tourism. In her paper she profiled a handful of early-adopting employers and insurance companies that are offering elements of medical tourism as a part of their health plans. "Institutions are slowly jumping on the bandwagon."



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