Acute Awareness of Medical Travel

Rick Johnson, for HealthLeaders Media , June 17, 2008

For all that is said—and all that we write—about strategy, leadership, and competition, these are the things that haven't mattered all that much for the majority healthcare leaders. Now comes this notion of globalization, and it flies in the face of the old saw that all healthcare is local.

"One of the challenges with globalization is that it creates options," Kaveh Safavi, MD, JD, chief medical officer at Thomson Reuters' Center for Healthcare Improvement, told me in a recent interview. "You have to earn the business, and that's probably the greatest lesson here. The idea that you have a geographic franchise is less and less guaranteed. You really have to earn your business because geography matters less and less."

There are a select few name-brand academic medical centers and major systems that have long competed globally. Let's face it, community hospitals in the U.S. didn't have to fight for their share of the market for many years and until recently didn't have to compete on quality, service, or value.

True healthcare globalization could change everything.

"I think it's going to force providers who were not competitive into achieving a competitive edge because they don't have a lock on a geography," says Safavi.

Of course, all of the above implies a significant number of Americans will travel for healthcare, and I don't yet think we're at the point that many will consider jetting to Thailand as their first, second, or even third option.

But a new research brief by Thompson Reuters says 71.2% of Americans are well-aware of overseas treatment as an option. Any marketer will tell you that awareness is the first step in the process of converting customers, so while this number may not have a tangible value, it has significance.

The brief, which pulled data from Thomson Reuters' 2008 PULSE survey of 23,000 Americans, also noted that the more affluent the respondents were, the more willing they were to use medical travel. Nearly 30% of those interested in using medical travel had an income of $150,000 or more, followed by 25.8% of respondents with an income in the $100,000 to $149,000 range and 23.7% with an income ranging from $75,000 to $90,000.

In a survey like this one there's often a gap between what people self-report and what they actually will do. However, increased awareness and the willingness on the part of the affluent both bode well for global destination hospitals, and they further the trend that U.S. providers cannot overly depend on what Safavi calls their "geographic cartel."

Rick Johnson is senior online editor of HealthLeaders Media. He may be reached at
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