With healthcare reform among the top issues facing the U.S., there has been much talk about increasing transparency and quality in the effort to reduce healthcare costs.
Now more large insurers are beginning to, or at least considering, covering medical tourism. Industry insiders say the medical travel industry's growth can ultimately improve healthcare quality for Americans by encouraging U.S. providers to be more transparent with their outcomes.
"Along with driving down costs, I think the other thing it will do is force that transparency of quality data from U.S. providers, and that to me is a huge benefit," says Wouter Hoeberechts, CEO of California-based WorldMed Assist, which works with employers to coordinate medical travel options for employees.
Before traveling for medical reasons, Americans will likely research and compare costs, outcomes, and quality-related statistics to determine whether the trip is worth it. If more Americans see that the quality of cardiovascular care is just as good as, say India, and they can get the same procedure at a significant cost saving, they will be more likely to go.
If medical tourism grows in popularity, the increased competition could encourage U.S. providers to improve their services and reevaluate costs, as well as make this information readily available to consumers.
"The American consumer and the American patient have not been trained to ask for outcomes data when they go to see their local physician, they just don't," Hoeberechts says. "Even if they are asking, they aren't going to get an answer—medical tourism will really change that."
As Hoeberechts said in a recent interview with HealthLeaders Media, medical travel is attractive for three reasons: Cost savings, access to some of the highest quality surgeons in the world, and decreased wait times.
The healthcare climate in the United States contributes to the medical travel industry as well.
"The uninsured people go because the cost savings are there—more companies are starting to implement high deductibles or in general do more cost shifting to their employees," Hoeberechts says. "It's just a matter of time before the employees will go in pretty large numbers."
He is quick to point out, however, that medical travel is only an additional option, not a replacement to receiving care in the United States.
"The domestic options stay in place, an international option is just added to that," Hoeberechts says. "You cannot have any hard rules around 'this type of procedure has to go abroad' because every case is just different."
Hoeberechts says that the medical travel business will grow exponentially in the next decade or so, but it will always remain a niche industry.
"This is not for everybody, not for every person in terms of their readiness to adopt it, but also from a medical point of view," Hoeberechts says. "Not everybody can get on the plane and fly depending on what is going on with their healthcare situation."
But for those U.S. patients who do decide on the medical travel route, the ability to compare quality and cost will continue to be a huge factor as they decide whether to get on a plane to travel to a foreign country for any medical procedure.
Hoeberechts says people may soon realize that in some areas of the world, quality information is readily available that shows the outcomes for certain procedures very comparable, or even better, than in the U.S., and at a significantly lesser cost. This could lead people who were on the fence about medical travel to be more likely to take the plunge, he says.
And as medical facilities face increased competition from abroad, they in turn would face pressure to be more transparent with their quality statistics, and reduce costs, to remain competitive.
"As we continue to broadcast that message, I think people will get smarter and ask more and more questions, and that will lead to improvement of quality," Hoeberechts says.