medical tourism imageNo, not how far you’d go in the Denzel Washington/John Q/hold-a-hospital-hostage sense. In the get-on-a-plane-toward-care sense.

Medical tourism has seen an exponential rise with patients in the US as health care costs and the number of uninsured patients have risen over the last 15 years. In a TIME magazine piece in 2006, Curtis Schroeder, CEO of Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok – somehow, I don’t think he’s Thai – said that in 2005 their census of US patients rose 30% (to 55,000).

That trend has continued, even with the advent of “health care reform” – health insurance reform, really – since health care costs have continued their hockey-stick rise, with no end in sight, for two decades.

50 years ago, patients from across the globe saw health care in the US as the holy grail. Now, US patients are traveling to Costa Rica, Thailand, Mexico, New Zealand, even Cuba to get access to high-quality, low-cost care.

US companies have started to explore medical tourism, and some are offering  incentives to their employees – incentives including getting to pocket some of the savings gained from traveling abroad for treatment. Not enough, however, to make medical tourism a healthy industry here in the US of A.

An August 2011 article in Workforce Management includes a story about a nurse in Louisiana (irony is our favorite thing here at Mighty Casey Media) who traveled to Costa Rica a few years ago for dental work, including oral surgery. She paid $2,700 out of pocket for what would have cost her $10,000 at home, with her employer covering $1,500 of her care expenses. Her net cost for the procedures was $1,200, plus her travel expenses – which travel was negotiated and arranged by a broker, Companion Global Health Care Inc.

I’m sure that, even after travel expenses, her savings were still solidly in the thousands of dollars.

So why aren’t more US companies encouraging their employees to take advantage of medical tourism? According to the CEO of Companion Global, David Boucher – who certainly has a dog in this fight, and who is quoted in the Workforce Management article linked above – the rising costs of health care make the health-tourism choice a no-brainer. He says that their customers are seeing a 2- or 3-to-1 return on investment for medical tourism, and patients – their customers employees – are very satisfied with the quality of their care.

However, according to Joe Marlowe, senior VP of health and productivity at the risk-management and HR consulting firm Aon Hewitt who’s also quoted in the WM story, employers are risk-averse, particularly at the idea of making themselves liable for medical care far from home that turns out badly for the patient.

What do you think? Would you travel 8,000 miles for a knee replacement, or 3,000 for chemotherapy, to save a significant amount of money and still receive high-quality care? Or would you want to be closer to your support system – family, friends – while receiving care?

I would most certainly travel to Bangkok or San Jose for a knee replacement. Not sure about oncology, since that follow-up can be so long-term.

You? I really would like to know.

That’s my story, and I’m stickin’ to it …

How far would you go for medical treatment?
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