A look at what medical tourism may mean to you

April 4, 2010
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Medical tourism may not be a term you are familiar with. It may conjure up a number of images, some good, some not so good, or maybe nothing at all. It may be viewed as threatening or as an opportunity, depending on your situation. However, regardless of what you know, or don't know, or your circumstances, it might be worth giving it some thought.

The health care legislation debate, whether you were for or against what Washington has done, probably at least got you thinking about what health care costs you. We all recognize that U.S. health care is expensive. What many Americans don't recognize is there are a number of countries around the world lurking in the background to see what happens to our system. These "lurkers" see an opportunity with our health care system, in high prices and the benefit levels for millions of our citizens.

That opportunity comes in the form of medical tourism. MT is based on the idea that the patient travels to a country where they get care at a significantly lower price than the cost in the US. The savings, even with the cost of travel, allows enough left over for a little recreation. The lurkers are starting to "cherry-pick" services. In doing so, they become very good at quality and outcomes on top of low prices.

Many people balk at the idea of turning their health care over to "foreigners" who aren't up to American standards. It doesn't take long to look around and notice that not all the people who are treating them in the "good old U.S. of A" are from here. Apparently, they can meet our standards. In fact, Costa Rica currently has three hospitals that are certified by the same accrediting agency that watches over U.S. hospitals. More are on the way in other locations.

The baby boomer generation can recall that when their folks bought a new car, the salesperson would tell them to check it out, make a list of the things that needed fixing and then bring it back to the dealership in a couple of weeks and they would take care of it. Then the Japanese auto companies came along, and their prices and quality got our attention. It took years for the U.S. car companies to get on the same playing field. We soon recognized others could do as well or maybe better. Because it was our dollars buying the car, we made prudent consumer decisions and went for lower cost and equal or better quality.

The baby boomer generation is now one of the highest consumers of health care services, and through high deductibles, reduced coverage or loss of coverage, are now personally paying more and more of the health care bill. Let's add some other elements to the mix: minimum mandatory coverage and Health Savings Plans. Each of these drives us to be better consumers. When you compare your out-of-pocket, or HSA, costs for deductibles and co-pays, doesn't it make sense to get a vacation for little or no charge while receiving services at a certified hospital or dental office where the entire bill is equal to what is required in the U.S.? No insurance hassle and you get the services you want.

It will not be long before American tour companies will arrange all accommodations to Mumbai for heart surgery, Rio de Janeiro for plastic surgery, Costa Rica for tooth implants, etc. Foreign countries have already started doing this. In fact Costa Rica has two government ministries that have announced plans to "woo" U.S. and Canadian retirees to come and live there and make it easy to immigrate. A key building block in the program is health care services.

Perhaps there is an opportunity for our local medical community to consider the concept of medical tourism. Instead of fighting others in the community for the same business, maybe we should look at the idea of practicing the MT concept for select areas of the U.S. where local Grand Rapids prices beat the higher prices in other geographies, and emphasize the quality of services our medical community can deliver. A complete package of services, such as transportation, room and board for family members — and for the patient when outpatient services are involved — could be a very attractive draw. Throw in a little entertainment, too. It would make things easier for the patient and family and would certainly give a marketing edge. If we get good at it, perhaps the international market has potential. Take a look at how people view the value of the Ronald McDonald house: It’s just a small version of the MT idea. Add a few more pieces and MT could be a real boon to the local economy.

Let's learn a little from the auto industry's history before we have a repeat lesson.

Ardon Schambers is a principal with P3HR Consulting & Services LLC.

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