Medical Travel: Exporting Patients

A few weeks ago, the Los Angeles Times ran an inauspicious feature in its business section. Several articles told readers how they can save money by seeking medical treatment in foreign countries. The problem? In a time of consumer-driven healthcare, that healthcare might very well be driven to other countries.
- The Deloitte Center for Health Solutions reports that 750,000 Americans traveled abroad for medical care in 2007 and projects the number will reach 6 million by 2010.
- Nearly 200 healthcare institutions outside the U.S. have been certified by the Joint Commission International.
-  Patients Beyond Borders, Josef Woodman's complete guide to "affordable, world-class medical tourism" is now in its second edition. It lists 40 destinations outside the U.S. that provide quality and innovation at a much lower cost.
The cost comparisons provided by Woodman are mind boggling. A heart valve replacement with bypass that costs $75,000 to $140,000 in the United States is just $9,500 in India or $25,000 in Israel or $50,600 in the United Arab Emirates. If quality is equal, we're in trouble. 
Deloitte estimates that domestic healthcare providers lost $16 billion to medical travel in 2007. Compared to $2.4 trillion in domestic healthcare spending, it's not much. But the upward trend promises to continue. Much will depend on what happens as the new administration tackles healthcare reform.
Now more than ever, the mighty U.S. healthcare industry is facing global competition. Few, if any, would argue that we provide the best medical treatment for those who can afford to pay. Will we succumb to competition and begin exporting patients—and jobs—in large numbers? Possibly.
The challenge for the U.S. healthcare industry is to compete globally on quality, cost and patient satisfaction. The opportunity for entrepreneurs is to get into the patient export business. By building high-quality global networks and making travel easy, they could deliver excellent outcomes at costs that open-minded payors, employers and individuals can't resist.

—Tom DeSanto 

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