Something to Sink your Teeth IntoOr Not


Something to Sink your Teeth Into…Or Not

The infamous McKinsey report, is its roar bigger than its bite?   In this editorial, I will say what everyone in the industry knows, but perhaps is afraid to express….

For the last few months, many people anxiously awaited the release of the the McKinsey Report, designed to shine a light on the trends in medical tourism.  The resulting document, entitled “Mapping the Market for Medical Travel,” left many hungry and thirsty to say the least.  Many marketers put their plans on hold after hearing the medical tourism market may only be 60,000 to 85,000, which is hundreds of thousands less than what many countries and even hospitals are claiming to be treating at this time.

Many presumed a company like McKinsey would conduct a detailed and expansive research study of the trends of the providers and participants.  The final product, however was very apropriately described by Michael Horowitz recently at a Taiwanese Medical Travel Conference as “a candle in the corner of a room.”  

Shining a light on merely a small portion of this industry we call medical tourism, the McKinsey report leaves us with very limited information upon which we can create our business models moving forward.  Hospitals planning to increase their flow of international patients may put some of those financial efforts on hold until we can gather better data on the numbers of patients actually traveling overseas.

Perhaps a good start for the McKinsey would have been better served to look up the definition of the term, “research,” instead of creating its own definition to the terms medical tourism and medical travel.  Webster’s defines “research” as, “investigation or experimentation aimed at the discovery and interpretation of facts.”  

One might be hard pressed to find such research in their report.  As early as this past fall, McKinsey knew nothing about Medical Tourism, accordingly to many industry leaders who received phone calls from McKinsey representatives in their rather hasty attempt to collect information and quickly become experts in time to make a presentation for a conference in Washington DC in December.

In such a short period of time, how sufficient data could be gathered, is unknown.  As most of us know, there is a distinct difference in the way international hospitals collect and record their data.  Hospitals define foreign patients in different ways and many include ex patriots and “accidental” patients in their numbers.  

Travelers seeking cosmetic and dental care and primarily seeking such treatment as clinics, not hospitals and outpatient services culminate a large number of many hospitals foreign patients’ numbers.  McKinsey opted to exclude these treatments.

McKinsey also opted to exclude patients traveling in “contiguous geographies,” for the reason that these people do not “consider other medical travel destinations and the financial burden is minimal.”  Does this eliminate all patients from the UK and Europe traveling to other countries in the EU?  

Does financial burden define medical travel or medical tourism?  What is the threshold of burden McKinsey is looking for?  Do we eliminate patients traveling from the US to Mexico for care?  Are the Mexican Hospitals therefore never providers of medical tourism for American patients?

How do you retroactively obtain data from foreign hospitals that is currently not tracked?   Did these interviewed hospitals (not listed or even numbered in the report) take the time to search their files to remove outpatient services, ex patriots, cosmetic and dental procedures, and patient from the country next door to come up with the conclusion that the current market is only 60,000 to 85,000?  Which hospitals were interviewed and in what countries?  

The bulk of the report seemed to focus on the patients traveling to the United States for care.  And what about the conclusion that foreign patient sin US hospitals has returned to their pre – September 11 numbers?  Most US hospitals would say their foreign patient numbers are down and even more interesting, countries in the Middle East and the Gulf Coast attest to the fact that patients in the Middle East are traveling to Europe and Asia for care due to the strict visa requirements in place in the United States.

What about alternative medical and wellness tourism?   Many patients travel overseas for alternative medicine that is not “wellness”, such as oriental medicine.  There are hospitals that cater to back injuries and other health related issues through a mix of alternative and modern medicine.  Granted, the inclusion of these aspects of medical tourism would make for a daunting task in just a few months, but isn’t that exactly what we as an industry needs to do?  

Don’t we need to define the industry and universalize the recording practices so we can really track these numbers and acquire hard data?  Governments are changing their country branding to promote their healthcare services.  Clusters of hospitals, once competitors, are working together to attract patients to their country first and then their hospitals through branding.  Budgets are being created to attract patients from different target markets throughout the world?  Is this being done for merely 60,000 patients?  I should think not.

Everyone knows the medical tourism industry is growing, this is nothing new, so the conclusion that the industry is promising, seems somewhat redundant.  But the thinly veiled attempt to make current industry projections seem like “hot air” based upon incredible and unscientific conclusions resulted in this “report” being an utter disappointment.

McKinsey’s report described their “our examination of the motives and behavior of these patients,” yet most industry participants question the motives and behavior of the examiner.  It is time the industry agrees upon the definitions and sets the universal terms upon which real data can be collected.  We are all hoping next time for more than just “a candle in the corner of the room.”

Jonathan Edelheit is President of the Medical Tourism Association with a long history in the healthcare industry, providing third party administra- tion services for fully insured, self-funded and mini-medical plans to large employers groups. Medical Tourism is the only real solution in health care today where employers are guaranteed to save money.

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