An estimated 500,000 Americans sought overseas medical care in 2005, a new report has found. Price sensitivity, competition of quality, customer service and convenience have emerged as factors that could accelerate medical tourism in the coming years.
The report's author predicts that the number of medical tourists would triple in number by 2020.
"Patients Beyond Borders: Everybody's Guide to Affordable, World-Class Medical Tourism," by Josef Woodman, says that the single biggest reason Americans travel to other countries for medical treatment is the opportunity to save on medical procedures.
Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand, sees 1,000 international patients a day and 50,000 Americans a year. Bumrungrad is a one-stop shop for surgery. Procedures that may have been performed over the course of a year in the states are done in quick succession at Bumrungrad.
Rudy Rupak, founder and president of PlanetHospital, a medical tourism company, stumbled upon the industry by accident when his wife received medical attention in Thailand. Rupak began the company in 2002 and since then has helped coordinate over 500 surgeries overseas. He now handles five per day.
PlanetHospital’s Web site is one of many medical tourism sites, but it's one of the only ones that displays the fees of offshore care. "Part of the reason we've had an AA rating with the Better Business Bureau since 2002 is because of transparency," Rupak said. "I respect (competitors such as) MTI and MedRetreat even if they do not share pricing data, but there are a few out there that give our industry a black eye."
One such site is Healthbase, Rupak said. Healthbase claims to have visited every hospital and every doctor they recommend, he noted. "However when you speak to the Angeles Hospital's international marketing office, they will tell you that Healthbase has never been to their hospital," said Rupak. "This is just plain wrong."
Medical care is cheaper in foreign nations partially due to disparities in providers' malpractice insurance rates, MedRetreat notes. Malpractice insurance for domestic physicians can cost over $100,000 annually. Foreign physicians' annual malpractice coverage is as often low as $4,000.
In regards to how his 27 clients have paid for these procedures, Rupak said six have had their overseas care (including dental) managed by their insurance companies, 11 have used their health savings accounts and 10 have decided that they were better off paying out of pocket for their procedures.
Critics of the concept have questioned the safety of receiving overseas care. "There are no bargains in medicine," malpractice attorney Ted Babbit said in an NBC special on medical tourism. "This is your life we are talking about... Don't put your life in the hands of a third world country and a third world doctor. That doesn't make good sense," Babbit said.
Rupak believes his clients receive safe and affordable care at the hands of their foreign providers. "I do not send my clients to a bargain basement location," he contested. "I send them to quality hospitals with quality prices."