With nearly 6 million Americans seeking care abroad, hospitalists need to have a working knowledge of the quality and cost of overseas care
by Rajiv N. Thakkar, MD, MBA
David Dupray, a 60-year-old uninsured coffee shop owner from Bar Harbor, Maine, had been having left leg pain on ambulation for four years. His cardiologist recommended stent placement for left iliac artery stenosis. The estimated bill: approximately $35,000.
Unable to afford the procedure, Dupray began searching the Web for affordable medical care overseas. His physician suggested Thailand. Within days, Dupray had an appointment with a cardiologist halfway around the world—at Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand. Dupray spent two days in the hotel-like hospital, had three stents placed in his leg arteries, and completed a cardiac stress test. The total bill: $18,000.
“I will never go to a hospital in the U.S.,” says Dupray, who represents a growing number of Americans searching for affordable healthcare in the global marketplace.
With rising U.S. healthcare costs and millions of Americans uninsured or underinsured, more American patients are seeking affordable, high-quality medical care abroad—known as “medical tourism.” In 2007, an estimated 750,000 Americans traveled abroad for medical care; the number is expected to increase to 6 million by the end of this year.1 On the flip side, only a little more than 400,000 nonresidents visited the U.S. in 2008 for the latest medical care.1 Globally, the medical tourism industry is estimated to grow into a $21 billion-a-year industry by 2012, with much of the growth expected from Western patients traveling overseas for affordable care.2
“As hospitalists, we have been seeing increasing numbers of patients going overseas for urgent and elective procedures, as it is a general perception the medical treatment overseas is less expensive,” says Joseph Ming Wah Li, MD, SFHM, director of hospital medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston and SHM president-elect.
Physicians in U.S. hospitals encounter potential medical tourists all the time. Some are uninsured or underinsured. Some have insurance carriers that limit or exclude coverage for certain procedures and treatments. Even those with insurance sometimes struggle to pay deductibles, copays, and their costs after insurance has paid its part. Others are uncomfortable with the language barriers and cultural differences of U.S. hospitals and physicians.
Medical tourism also lures patients who are citizens of countries (e.g. Canada, the United Kingdom) that offer universal healthcare, Dr. Li says.3 For example, more expatriates from India and Malaysia are traveling to their native countries for medical care, as they receive affordable and quicker medical care while visiting family.
Hospitalists routinely care for patients requiring essential cardiac or orthopedic surgeries—conditions that are common in the medical tourism trade. With medical tourism growing in scope and popularity, it is essential that hospitalists are prepared to discuss with their patients the pros and cons of traveling for medical care. Hospitalists should be able to:
A basic understanding of the industry and the issues can help guide your patients through medical decisions and help you care for those who have returned from a medical trip.
Medical tourism offers a wide range of medical services performed in hospitals on nearly every continent, with a wide range of costs for certain procedures (Table 1, p. 26). Most surgeries cost 50% to 90% less than the average cost of the same surgery at a U.S. hospital. Many in the medical tourism industry say these types of savings have brought once-unaffordable surgery within the reach of most Americans, regardless of insurance status. For example, cardiac bypass surgery on average costs $144,000 in the U.S.; it costs about $8,500 in India.
The reasons the costs are so much less at overseas hospitals, as compared with U.S. costs, are many:
For example, the annual liability insurance premium for a surgeon in India is $4,000; the average cost of a New York City surgeon’s liability insurance premium is $100,000.5
Brazil, Costa Rica, and Mexico are attractive destinations for cosmetic and dental surgeries; Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and India have emerged as hubs for cardiac and orthopedic surgeries (Table 1, above).6
The growth in medical tourism led the Joint Commission in 1999 to launch Joint Commission International (JCI), which ensures that offshore hospitals provide the highest-quality care to international patients (see “Ultra-Affordable Prices and No Decline in Quality of Care,” p. 28). JCI has accredited 120 overseas hospitals that meet these standards.
“Overseas hospitals are always keen in partnering with U.S. hospitals,” Dr. Li says. Collaborations, such as Johns Hopkins International Medical Center’s partnership with International Medical Clinic Singapore, and Partners Harvard Medical International’s affiliation with Wockhardt Hospitals in Mumbai, India, have helped facilitate the accreditation process and alleviate U.S. patient concerns.
Overseas hospitals not only offer greatly discounted rates than insurer-negotiated U.S. prices, but many of the international hospitals also report quality scores equal to or better than the average U.S. hospital’s.7
How do patients find overseas facilities? It’s as easy as a click of the mouse.
“Our survey shows 75 percent of patients located offshore hospitals through the Internet,” says Renee-Marie Stephano, president of the Medical Tourism Association, a nonprofit group based in West Palm Beach, Fla., that was established in 2007 to promote education, transparency, and communication in the medical tourism community. Patients use overseas hospital websites, international medical coordinators, and medical tourism companies, such as PlanetHospital.com and MedRetreat.com, to find facilities and providers, and to coordinate medical travel.
“Medical tourism is currently unregulated,” Stephano says. “One of our goals is to certify medical tourism facilitators to create the best standard of practice.”
In 2007, the American Medical Association (AMA) published medical tourism guidelines to help healthcare entities engaged in overseas medical care.8 (Download a PDF of the guidelines at www.ama-assn.org/ama1/pub/upload/mm/31/medicaltourism.pdf.) The AMA suggests that:
Hospitalists are highly focused on a patient’s quality of care; the same can be said of some overseas hospitals that attract large numbers of medical tourists. “I think the service and quality of care provided at our hospital compares favorably with the very best American hospitals,” says Kenneth Mays, senior director of hospital marketing and business development at Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok.
That might be so, but the growth of medical tourism also raises concerns stateside. With sleek websites making it easy for U.S. patients to schedule procedure vacations from their kitchen tables, many U.S. physician and watchdog groups worry about patient safety, privacy, liability, and continuity of care. Although most international hospitals and physicians provide outcomes data, rarely do the benchmarks compare directly with U.S. hospital quality and safety data.
“Quality comparisons are difficult, even within U.S. hospitals, as hospitals use different methodologies to collect data,” says Stephano. “Patients have to rely on JCI accreditation, surgeon experience, volume, and outcomes to decide.”
Recent studies echo the Medical Tourism Association’s claim: Increased cardiac surgery volume at Apollo Hospitals—an 8,500-bed healthcare system with 50 locations throughout India—and Narayana Hospital in Bommasandra, India, has lowered costs, with similar, or even lower, mortality rates compared with the average U.S. hospital.7,9 Other challenges like getting medical records exist even within U.S. hospitals, so emerging platforms like Google Health and Microsoft Vault, where medical records can be uploaded at the touch of a button, “will benefit patients and providers,” Dr. Li says.
The Medical Tourism Association envisions U.S.-based physicians offering follow-up care to medical tourism patients. “Currently, we encourage patients to follow up with their primary-care physician,” Stephano says.
Dr. Li says malpractice is always a concern when traveling overseas; however, he also notes the legal system in the U.S. is strong enough “to handle any medical malpractice.” That said, a patient who experiences a poor medical outcome as the result of overseas treatment might seek legal remedies, but the reality is that malpractice laws are either nonexistent or not well implemented in some destination countries. That makes malpractice claims on overseas procedures a dicey proposition.
“Patients receiving overseas treatment need to realize that they are agreeing to the jurisdiction of the destination country,” Stephano says. Other risks associated with extended travel include exposure to regional infectious diseases and poor infrastructure in the destination country, which could undermine the benefits of medical travel.
Cost-saving benefits have led some U.S. insurance companies to begin integrating overseas medical coverage. For example, Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina offers incentives for patients willing to obtain medical care overseas at JCI-approved hospitals. BCBS then waives deductibles and copays, and several other insurers have launched similar pilot programs.10 “We will see more of these changes,” Stephano says, “to cut costs and remain competitive.”
In 2008, U.S. healthcare spending was $2.3 trillion.11 A 2005 Institute of Medicine report suggests that 30% to 40% of current U.S. healthcare expenditure is wasted.12 U.S. lawmakers, employers, hospitals, and consumers are scrambling to find ways to reduce healthcare costs and improve efficiency. Medical tourism seems to benefit a select few Americans, only lowering U.S. healthcare spending by 1% to 2%.12
Medical tourism revenue generated in destination countries currently is limited to the private sector, but that might change soon. Government funding for healthcare initiatives in such countries as India, Brazil, and Thailand is declining. Some entrepreneurial physicians and hospitals are looking to medical tourism to fill the funding gap.
Medical tourism likely will continue to grow; so too will the legal, quality, and insurance protections for patients. Efficient resource utilization might help reduce U.S. healthcare costs, and improved distribution of destination-country resources might help improve infrastructure and access to better healthcare for their own citizens.
With their leadership skills and expertise, hospitalists can play a major role in reducing healthcare costs.
However, what actual reforms healthcare legislation brings to medical tourism remain to be seen. TH
Dr. Thakkar is a hospitalist and assistant professor in the division of hospital medicine at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.
The Hospitalist newsmagazine reports on issues and trends in hospital medicine. The Hospitalist reaches more than 25,000 hospitalists, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, residents, and medical administrators interested in the practice and business of hospital medicine.