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For Medical Travel, the Future is Now

Jonathan Edelheit
Medical Tourism Association

The following was originally published in the October 2019 special print edition of Medical Tourism Magazine, which was initially available at the 12th annual World Medical Tourism & Global Healthcare Congress in Abu Dhabi.

It’s a huge privilege to host many of our friends and colleagues from around the world at the 12th World Medical Tourism & Global Healthcare Congress, presented in partnership with the Abu Dhabi government.

Medical travel and healthcare tourism have come a long way in a relatively short period of time. When I first started exploring the idea in the early and mid-2000s, there was very little industry talk – medical tourism was only a trendy sideshow for big spenders or patients seeking specialty care unavailable at home. Few people ever discussed it. Still, I saw the potential, so I became the first to implement medical tourism in fully-insured and self-funded insurance plans in the United States, with providers in Thailand, Colombia, and Costa Rica.

Even then, I still held several misconceptions about the industry, questioning quality and delivery of care.

Today, all of those misconceptions are long gone. I’ve fully opened my eyes to a world of infinite industry possibilities. When we started the Medical Tourism Association® (MTA) – before the industry or the media had ever warmed up to the term ‘medical tourism’ – everyone said we were premature, that medical tourism hadn’t bloomed into anything remarkable yet.

Since then, I’ve watched medical tourism disrupt healthcare on a global scale, forcing both healthcare facilities and municipal governments to become more transparent in their quality and pricing in order to stay competitive. We’ve seen nations inject billions of dollars into their healthcare sector to build world-class centers of excellence. It’s been a radical, transformative 15 years.

As much progress as we have collectively made, we’ve still got plenty of important improvements ahead of us. The consumer path to medical tourism is often difficult and frustrating, with unnecessary challenges to any number of industry behaviors. It’s still far too difficult to find and access trustworthy information about quality and pricing; there is a consistent lack of portability of insurance; ununified payment policies cause consumer headaches; we haven’t yet perfected risk management and the surrounding legal concerns. There’s also the ongoing issue of slow acceptance for accreditation and certification standards that support the growth of the industry.  

We must act together, as a global unit, if we want to remove the barriers that are impeding the continued evolution of medical travel. Because we are a newer, growth-focused industry, the responsibility is on us to grow our field by bringing new buyers and healthcare consumers into it. That’s why this year’s 12thannual World Medical Tourism & Global Healthcare Congress has been constructed around the theme of “Breaking Down Barriers.”  

Back when we started the MTA, there were only a handful of known buyers, with the majority of patient referrals emanating from physicians in emerging markets and health attachés from embassies. Now, in addition, there are thousands of private sector players, in every corner of the world. They are noticeably more sophisticated and demand more than what the market can offer right now. Many provider hospitals have a myopic view of the world and their market share; instead of creating the right marketing & business development strategy, some think they only need a handful of online links or simple online presence, adding a page to their website for medical tourism.

Most hospitals don’t even realize how inadequate their marketing initiatives or websites are.

We also hear frequent stories of hospitals stealing patients from corporate buyers (referrers), robbing them of their commission and fees, or of hospitals dragging out a contract signing for six to twelve months. Then there are the issues with buyers struggling to successfully commercialize their operation, struggling to figure out a successful business model; many go out of business in the first two years. Perhaps the worst offenders are the buyers steering patients toward non-qualified or non-accredited healthcare providers, simply because there are higher commissions available.

In an age where privacy protection is of the utmost concern, many hospitals and facilitators violate patient privacy laws far too frequently, often in the name of convenience or cost management. Many governments are spending billions of dollars sending their citizens overseas, but they’re managing the process with spreadsheets, emails, calculators, and paper & pen strategies. In the 21st century, this seems antiquated, inefficient, and short-sighted.

If patients or referrers can’t easily transfer medical records to hospitals, or if they can’t easily get a quote or second opinion without a seven-day waiting period, the industry will struggle to grow to its full potential.

This labyrinth of barriers and silos is completely unnecessary. Medical Tourism can be easy. Together, we can rally around 21st century technology, forward-thinking strategies, and proven best practices to greatly improve the industry and those within it.

Medical travel is here to stay. As we all learn how to smooth out the edges, the industry is only going to get better. It’s time for us all to get more sophisticated or get left behind.

I think medical travel is ready for the next step. I hope we can take that step with you.

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