What can U.S. healthcare innovators learn from medical tourism inside and outside its borders?

7:27 pm by | 1 Comments

Mexico beachMexico’s beaches are supposed to be beautiful so maybe it’s not hard to understand why people would flock there for surgery and make it the No. 2 medical tourism hot spot. A pair of reports reveal that although the U.S. is one of the top three destinations for medical tourism, it could also learn from innovation in other countries such as India.

Medical tourism is booming. It’s a $40 billion global industry, according to data from Patients Beyond Borders cited in a Bloomberg story.

About 800,000 international patients came to the U.S. for procedures last year, according to the report, beaten out of the top spot for medical tourism by Mexico and Thailand. Mexico in particular attracts nationals from across the border as well as those who want to pay a little less for dental and plastic surgery.

On the other hand, the U.S. has an estimated 750,000 medical tourists of its own leaving its borders in search of cheaper medical care. So maybe healthcare providers have something to learn from companies within and outside its borders. Cue the Innovative Partnership for Healthcare Delivery, based at Duke University — founded by the World Economic Forum, Duke University and McKinsey & Co. in 2011 and a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation grant recipient.


Among the companies and hospitals in its network are Case Management Company, which is using telemonitoring for chronically ill and elderly patients to reduce the need for frequent doctor visits and lower healthcare costs.

Another, Narayana Hrudayalaya, is a group of hospitals, clinics and health centers in India to make cardiac care more widely available. Headquartered in Bangalore, its goal is to offer heart surgery for $800, according to RWJF’s blog. It has partnered with U.S. health system Ascension Health to build a veritable healthcare city in the Cayman Islands that will include a 140-bed tertiary care hospital as part of $2 billion, 2,000-bed project that is to include a medical school, a biotechnology park and an assisted-living community.

Personally, I don’t think the numbers of Americans seeking care outside the country are meaningful. The count by Patients Beyond Borders cited by RWJF is well under 1 percent of the U.S. population. It would be interesting to a get a better breakdown of the kind of care Americans are seeking in the first place. Is it plastic surgery? Dental work? If that’s the case, I doubt there’s much hope of beating out the likes of Mexico or Thailand on costs alone. If it is more along the lines of cataract surgery and heart surgery, maybe we should worry.

Still, it will be interesting to see how the project between NH and Ascension in the Cayman Islands progresses. It would be amazing if $800 heart surgery were available in the U.S. but, judging by recent comparisons within the U.S., don’t expect it to happen anytime soon.

[Photo credit: Andrew Hitchcock, Wikimedia Commons]

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Stephanie Baum

By Stephanie Baum

Stephanie Baum is the East Coast Innovation Reporter for MedCityNews.com. She enjoys covering healthcare startups across health IT, drug development and medical devices and innovations deployed to improve medical care. She graduated from Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania and has worked across radio, print and video. She's written for The Christian Science Monitor, Dow Jones & Co. and United Business Media.
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Josef Woodman
Josef Woodman

Thanks for your insights. While I agree the economic impact of US-outbound medical tourism is negligible on the American healthcare system, much can be learned from international economies and stakeholders. For example, hospitals in other countries are more likely to post pricing and package deals for procedures, to offer preventive and non-clinical care, to deploy telediagnostics, remote monitoring and other telecomm innovations. Governments of Norway and Denmark save millions subsidizing travel by patients with acute conditions travel to thermal treatments in Turkey, Bulgaria, Hungary. Singapore's MediSave program allows their patients travel to claim benefits from travel to less expensive Malaysia (much as if our Medicare would allow patients to make claims in Mexico or Costa Rica). Unfortunately, most of our healthcare leaders remain parochial, with large incentives to preserve the status quo.