Medical Tourism on the Rise: Travel + Medicine an Option for You and Your Patients?

As one who looks for any excuse to travel, a recent story about Wal-Mart including medical tourism in their employee's medical insurance plans recently piqued my interest.  Where are patients traveling to receive medical services?  Is medical tourism safe?  Why are patients leaving their hometowns seeking medical treatment- for improved quality of care or an excuse for a vacation?  I just might be interested...

The term medical tourism simply refers to leaving one's own community in search of medical treatment not available in one's hometown or in search of higher quality and/or lower cost of care.  Both physicians and patients have questions and concerns about this growing field of globalized medical care

Where are Patients Traveling for Medical Services?

Sorry folks, it's not all pina coladas, sand volleyball, sunsets and beaches with medical tourism.  Much of this practice takes place domestically.  Institutions such as John's Hopkins and Cleveland Clinic are promoting their services to patients and employers cutting them deals and packages for providing medical care at a distance.  Patients travel to locations (and often not desirable ones) within the U.S. such as Baltimore and Cleveland for improved quality and lower cost of care. 

On an international front, countries like Mexico, Thailand, Costa Rica and Switzerland market medical services to tourists.  Promoting decreased costs, excellent customer service and lavish accommodations these exotic locals attract adventurous patients.

What Medical Procedures Draw Medical Tourists?

Surgeries are the main draw for patients, especially with domestic medical tourism.  Hospitals promoting domestic travel for service draw patients seeking heart surgeries, joint replacements and spine surgeries.  Why?  Institutions that perform these procedures in large numbers generally do a better job.  Larger volume of a certain type of procedure typically predicts better outcomes and fewer complications often at a lower cost.

Patients travel internationally for similar surgical procedures but also for innovative therapies not yet approved in the United States.  Thailand, for example, offers stem cell therapy a treatment not yet approved by the FDA.  Poland offers innovative MS therapy options.  Americans have long visited Mexico for elective procedures such as liposuction and facelifts at a reduced cost.

Is International Medical Tourism Safe?

Domestically, companies, patients and providers recognize the improved safety and outcomes associated with traveling to renowned institutions like the Cleveland Clinic for medical care.  Internationally, however skepticism naturally exists.

Although patients enjoy the ability to travel in order to receive newer treatment options not approved in the United States, these services carry obvious risk.  Countries like Thailand, South Africa, Cuba and India all promoting their medical tourism industries don't have strict regulations and approval policies or the threat of malpractice lawsuits present in the United States.  This holds providers less accountable for the care they provide.

Exact statistics regarding deaths and complications of medical treatments abroad are not available.  Stories of complications and tragedy, like deaths resulting from the controversial liberation treatment for MS, cloud the pages of the internet.  Without strict regulations associated with the practice of medicine in other countries, safety remains unknown and therefore treatment internationally is always a risk for your patients- especially if they are traveling for new, minimally tested procedures.

Should Nurse Practitioners Recommend Medical Tourism to Their Patients?

Sure! I would have little hesitation recommending domestic medical tourism to your patients.  As long as the condition you are hoping to treat is not a time sensitive matter, your patients may even experience better outcomes at an alternate medical center.  Internationally, however I would hesitate.  With varying safety profiles, medical services in other countries should be approached with caution.  Patients experiencing problems with their care internationally could suffer serious health consequences and will have little recourse should a complication develop.  Although many Americans have wonderful things to say about treatment abroad, safety profiles are not yet established.  Too many stories of complications exist for my formal recommendation.

What's the bottom-line?  I'm always up for an international adventure- but I will get my medical care here in the U.S. before departing.