Medical tourism: way of the future or flight of fancy?

3 min read
First Published: 
Feb 2009

Key Learnings contained in this article:

The European Union is moving to strengthen rights of EU patients to seek care in countries other than their own, while the UK government has stated that the National Health Service definitely won’t fund medical tourism.

At the same time, India , Thailand , Korea and Thailand are all ramping up their efforts to attract medical tourists, and polls show that some 4% of Europeans sought treatment overseas in 2007. Some estimates put the global market for medical tourism at between 60,000 and 85,000 inpatient medical travels a year.

Leonard Karp (pictured right), president and CEO of Philadelphia International Medicine (PIM), heads an organisation that attracts medical tourists from outside the USA – more than 3,000 last year. He notes that inbound travel to the USA for medical care is valued at more than $1 billion a year by the United States Department of Commerce.

In an interview with HOC , Mr Karp said that in general he believes that international pooling of medical resources will save costs. But he warns that there’s a downside – visa and payment issues among them – plus possible language and cultural barriers. And then there’s the matter of legal recourse if anything should go amiss. That might be a problem outside the USA , he says; but patients coming into the country have the same legal rights as do US citizens. Before setting out for treatment at such well-known medical centres as the Mayo Clinic and at sites in New York, Boston, Miami, Los Angeles, Seattle and Philadelphia, patients should be able to show legitimate medical need, ability to pay – and should check with their clinic or hospital of choice, says Karp.

PIM, now in its tenth year of operation, not only brings overseas patients into Philadelphia , it is also, according to Karp, looking for new ways to enhance its mission. For example, it is increasingly active in Asia and recently signed its first payer contract with an Indian health insurance company; it also completed a feasibility study to develop an international hospital in South Korea . The company also plans to offer its services to additional hospitals that have an interest in medical travel but lack the infrastructure to manage an international patient population.

Back in Philadelphia , PIM not only attracts patients to the city for specific medical procedures, but also produces an adjunctive economic benefit. Says Karp: “Patients stay at local hotels, often for six weeks or more. Their families utilise the region’s restaurants, shop for gifts for family back home, and rely on local interpreters, medical equipment providers, and other services.”

Asked if he sees a time when US insurers will look to specific foreign countries for particular services or procedures, Karp notes that some Southeast Asian countries have established a focus on organ transplants. But so far, the major American health insurance companies have not bought into outbound medical tourism. As healthcare costs continue to soar beyond the present 16% of GDP, that might change. Having your heart transplant and getting to see the Taj Mahal in the same trip and for half the cost of the procedure at home could have piqued the insurance company accountants’ interest.

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David Woods
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