Patients seeking care in their own country sometimes want additional options when they can't find what they are looking for because of pricing, wait times, availability of certain procedures or quality. This may cause them to travel to countries outside of the U.S., bringing a new source of revenue to foreign providers. Such movement can cause concern among U.S. doctors about the quality of care their patients may be receiving as well as lost business.
However, there are still ways for providers in the country to improve its medical tourism market, especially since it's still relatively new and there's still some room for growth. The medical tourism industry was valued $439 billion and the projected growth rate was as much as 25% per year over the next decade as of last July in a report from Visa and Oxford Economics. And American providers can learn from such markets in other countries as more patients have been searching for healthcare services abroad than before.
Approximately 750,000 Americans travel abroad for medical procedures each year, the CDC reported, adding that cosmetic surgery, dentistry, and heart surgery are among the most common services U.S. residents receive in medical tourism trips.
Dr. Sophie Chung, CEO and founder of Berlin-based digital medical travel hub Junomedical, recently spoke with Healthcare Dive on how medical tourism is faring in the U.S. and the market's current needs to keep patients from leaving but also to get more foreign patients to visit. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Healthcare Dive: How has the medical tourism market evolved over time?
Sophie Chung, Junomedical CEO and founder: The medical tourism market is a very young and immature market compared to many other markets out there. It's one of the fastest growing markets at around 20% to 25% per year. And that's what makes it exciting for me. When looking at this market, there's one or two big players out there. Everybody is kind of starting to discover the market from a provider perspective but also from a patient perspective. The patients who are traveling right now, those are the first Ubers. Those are the first people who dared booked on Airbnb.
Healthcare Dive: How would helping patients seek the care they need in different locations affect operating costs for providers in the U.S.?
Chung: When you're talking about doctors in the country seeing their patients going somewhere else instead of getting treatment within the country, those doctors are very skeptical because they're basically losing business. The concern that you often hear is the quality concern. Lots of doctors I speak to say, "The patients are just going for a different price. They come back, they have some problems because they’re not receiving the same quality as they would get at home." And unfortunately, this sometimes is true. At Junomedical, all doctors are board certified, everybody is internationally accredited and so on.
Healthcare Dive: How could U.S. providers make better use of this potential extra source of revenue?
Chung: It very much depends on the specialty of the provider, but generally speaking, I think a good start is transparency. The reason why this market is such an immature market and such a difficult market is because there’s very little price transparency.
If you were a patient and interested in traveling abroad, you would go on Google and type something in, but there's not just one place to go. You have to plow through masses of information to actually get to where you need to go. For providers to participate in that process, the first thing is provider transparency around prices, what they do, outcome data, and all those things.
Healthcare Dive: How should concerns with privacy and security be addressed?
Chung: When patients go abroad or even when they just speak to us, we have to qualify them or introduce the patient case to one of our surgeons abroad. Every time that we do that there's medical information traveling from one place to the other mostly through the internet and its never risk free. I think it's on companies like Junomedical to make sure that the fields with medical information have as much caution as they can. This involves technical solutions, encryption, how we think about data transfer, what kind of data we transfer and also having access restrictions to patient data.
Healthcare Dive: What are some of the ongoing debates around policy for medical tourism?
Chung: The biggest policy gap globally is in payments. For example, if you’re a part of an EU country, there’s a law that says every patient can travel between EU countries and get reimbursed for their medical treatment. But really for patients to practically do this, it’s almost impossible because health insurers make it really, really hard to get preapproved, to summit all the patient data, and then get reimbursed.
Healthcare Dive: What about policies in the U.S.?
Chung: In the U.S. it’s even harder because there’s not even that kind of policy or law in place. I think looking at healthcare spending, especially in the U.S. as the country with the highest healthcare spending, politicians and even lawmakers have to become a little bit more creative in how they can leverage the remotization to actually know what healthcare spends without comprising quality. Medical tourism is something that has huge potential that can benefit millions of patients, health systems in terms of lowering healthcare spending. It will only be a matter of time when patients who are actually already doing it are putting pressure on policymakers.