At the Medical Tourism Conference in Los Angeles this week, business looked more like Skagway during the Klondike than a tradeshow at the Hyatt Century Plaza. Medical Tourism may be the new gold rush. It’s an emerging industry with roles for a variety of players in scenarios yet to be defined.
Hospitals, CVBs and destination management companies, and even airlines were in attendance with doctors, lawyers, insurance brokers and, yes, travel agents in a three-day conference that attracted interested parties from around the globe.
While the focus of medical tourism is invariably the patient who is seeking a cost effective medical treatment abroad, travel agents have the potential to play a huge role in this industry that is immersed in travel, transfer and lodging arrangements all requiring a lot of attention and someone at the other end of a phone call.
“We are marrying two of the largest industries in the world and there has not been a lot of interaction between them until recently,” said Dan Cormany, a doctoral candidate in medical tourism marketing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “I haven’t seen much of what we’re talking about now. While the medical portion is well known and covered, the tourism part is not well defined.”
According to members of the Joint Commission International (the primary hospital accreditation organization internationally), more than 750,000 Americans sought treatment outside the U.S. in 2007 and that number is projected to grow to 6 million by next year.
As those Americans go to Mexico to get teeth implants, Thailand for heart surgery, or Costa Rica to put on a new face, concerns for how people get to their treatments and return from these serious surgeries are becoming as important as vetting the doctors and the hospitals where these procedures will take place. To put it all together— the patient, the hospitals, the specialists, the hotels and all the travel— are the “facilitators:” a new entity in this developing field describing someone who is part travel specialist, part medical operator, part insurance buff— who can sell a new set of teeth as easily as a trip to Disney World.
Jorge Franz, VP of Tourism and International Group Sales for the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Authority
“Most clinics in this business will have a department for travel. But this business is complicated,” said Ted Cromwell, president of Travel Professionals, a travel company out of Chicago that has started playing a part in this growing field. “When it comes to medical tourism, the patients should be leaving the travel arrangements to someone who be responsible for what happens – not to Orbitz or b. There are all sorts of things that can go wrong and these can be very serious if someone is sick or has just had surgery. The patient has to have a certain seat, a certain type of transfer, or may not even be allowed to return on the same airline if they are ill. Where is the hotel? Is it set up for wheelchairs? You need to have it all set up properly and the patient or client needs to have someone to call when something goes wrong.”
Some travel agents have seen a great opportunity in setting up travel for patients and have turned into facilitators specializing in a certain hospital or destination. Thailand Medical Travel & Tourism in San Diego, run by Cherie and Kiki Bright, is one such agency, providing seamless travel and tour arrangements for people scheduling medical procedures in Bangkok and Phuket.
Other agents make a complete business of becoming a medical tourism operator by finding hospitals, vetting doctors, choosing resorts, providing transport and taking care of patient concerns from start to finish. That is the case with FaceLiftMexico.com, an agency in Stuart, FL that has been marrying U.S. travel clients with cosmetic surgery performed in San Miguel Allende, Mexico since 1994.
“This is what we do,” said Pat Marino, president and founder. “We have the flights, we know the hospitals and the doctors and what the surgeries entail. We set up the patient in a spa resort so they are relaxed and comfortable. And it is all at a fraction of the cost for what you would have to pay here— 90 minutes from Houston by air.”
Because the field is so new, the layers of liability have yet to be tested. There is no legal or overseeing body for “facilitators,” although there are certification standards set by the Medical Tourism Association. Disclaimers and waivers run rife through the contracts with an emphasis on caveat emptor.
“Clients have a choice and we give them plenty of options. But in the end they choose to have the surgery or treatment done at this hospital in this country. We give them the information but they make the choice,” said Marino.
Providers: Hospitals and clinics capable of managing anything from capped teeth to new organs are marketing their specialties to facilitators and insurance companies with tradeshow fanfare. A walk around the conference floor brings options for IVF fertility treatments with an 85 percent success rate at a clinic in Barbados for $6,000, or a hospital in India that can perform heart by-pass surgery for $20,000 instead of $120,000. U.S insurance companies are checking the possibilities of outsourcing some of these expensive procedures to offshore hospitals to save in the costs of some critical and horrendously expensive procedures. A hospital CEO from Puerto Rico tabs U.S. labor costs as the culprit and claims his hospital, close by and in an American territory with U.S. Board-certified physicians, can offer the surgeries in demand for a tenth of what they would cost on the mainland.
“It’s wide open and travel professionals have to find their way in, although I don’t think I would want to be a facilitator,” said Cromwell. “That could be a big headache. But I do think people who are planning these treatments often have a lot of disposable income and should use a travel agent. And facilitators should use travel agents. Hospitals are in the business of healthcare, not travel, and should not be handling these arrangements either. Travel agents should be able to find a way to serve these avenues as support.”
For more information contact the Medical Tourism association in Palm Beach, FL, (561) 791-2000 or visit www.medicaltourismassociation.com.