2008: The Year of Hype

Rick Johnson, for HealthLeaders Media , December 30, 2008

It will be remembered as the year that shined a bright spotlight on medical travel. Although the concept had been around for many years, in 2008 healthcare leaders, policy wonks, and the media excited the public's imagination that medical travel could be one strategy for dealing with spiraling cost of healthcare in the U.S.

In a year that went by all too quickly, we saw employers add medical travel benefits, popular magazines publicize healthcare abroad, a major medical association issue guidelines, and much more.

Here's my short list of 2008's top medical travel happenings:

  • The AMA offers sensible guidance. When some members of the American Medical Association voiced concerns about the risks of medical travel, the AMA decided to do some research. In the end, they came up with guidance for patients that no one could argue with. Most importantly, they didn't suggest that care abroad was inferior or risky. And the AMA acknowledged that the patient ultimately should have the right to choose a provider regardless of location.
  • Two major studies published. First McKinsey & Company released a study that said there were only about 60,000 to 85,000 inpatient medical travelers per year. This was picked up by the Wall Street Journal, which summed up that there are significantly fewer medical travelers than previously reported by global destination hospitals. Some in the medical travel business were critical of the study's restrictive definition of medical travelers. On the other hand, the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions soon after published its own findings that say within two years there could be as many as 6 million outbound medical travelers from the U.S. alone. Both McKinsey and Deloitte should be commended for even attempting to quantify the number of medical travelers and to make predictions about the future. For the medical travel industry, it is significant that medical travel is a trend worth this sort of research effort.
  • Hannaford proves the world is not flat. As a self-insured employer with some 9,000 covered employees, Hannaford Bros. Co. attempted to change the dialogue with providers in its local market to get them to address the cost and quality of healthcare. As a way of opening the eyes of U.S. healthcare executives, Hannaford decided to add a medical travel option for certain elective procedures, and then quickly found U.S. providers willing to make a counteroffer.
  • Networks continue to expand. Despite a global recession, David Boucher, president of Companion Global Healthcare, has expanded his network to 13 JCI-accredited hospitals around the world. Most recently, Companion has added Apollo Hospitals in India. Many analysts expect that the U.S. will be the region with the fastest growth of medical travelers. Should employers and insurers embrace medical travel, Companion is a well-developed network to deliver on medical travel's promise.

This might have been the year that hyped global healthcare options—let's not forget that medical tourism stories were featured on the covers of popular magazines like U.S. News & World Report, Fast Company, and the Economist. Perhaps 2009 will be the year that begins to prove the concept on a large scale. And to keep the spotlight on medical travel, the January issue of HealthLeaders magazine will have a cover story about global healthcare. Don't miss it.

Rick Johnson is senior online editor of HealthLeaders Media. He may be reached at rjohnson@healthleadersmedia.com.
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