2012: Year of Milestones in Medical Travel

by Maria Lenhart

2012 was a landmark year for medical tourism, as news-making events drew attention to the sector’s rapid growth as well as its emerging potential for travel sellers.

High points included the first-ever Well-Being and Medical Travel Conference; Walmart’s introduction of medical travel coverage for employees, and the continuing development of internationally accredited medical facilities around the globe.

The approval by the Supreme Court of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, was a significant development, though its impact on medical tourism in the years ahead remains uncertain.

In the travel trade press, Travel Market Report took the lead in its coverage of medical tourism, featuring in-depth interviews with medical tourism experts about key trends as well as practical advice for travel sellers on how to tap this lucrative niche market.

Here’s a look at important medical tourism developments in 2012.

Historic Conference Brings Med Travel Industry Together
In June, the Well-Being and Medical Travel Conference marked a milestone for the burgeoning medical tourism industry. The event brought together, for the first time, stakeholders from the key sectors, including travel agents, medical travel facilitators, suppliers and medical travelers for the first time.

The conference was hosted by Travel Market Report and its sister company Well-Being Travel, which was founded five years ago to foster travel agent participation in the fast-moving medical travel market. About 400 people attended the event, which was held at the Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz.

“We saw that the missing link in medical tourism was the travel side,” explained Anne Marie Moebes, executive vice president of Well-Being Travel, during a press conference at the conference. “There was clearly a need for someone who represents the consumer. This had not been looked at as a separate niche before.”

(See: Historic Conference a Milestone for Medical Tourism Industry)

Walmart and Boeing Co. Offer Med Travel Coverage
This past fall, Walmart and Boeing became the latest prominent companies to offer their employees medical travel coverage for treatment at medical facilities out of their home areas. Walmart’s coverage, which goes into effect Jan. 1, offers coverage at six health care facilities around the country; Boeing’s coverage, already in effect, extends only to the Cleveland Clinic.

The companies joined the ranks of companies such as PepsiCo and Lowes, which already offer medical travel coverage. Medical travel experts heralded the developments as evidence that employer-sponsored medical travel is a growing trend.

(See: Walmart Offers Medical Travel Coverage to Employees)

Medical Destinations Emerge Worldwide
From Ohio to Malaysia, the number of internationally accredited health care facilities targeting medical travelers is skyrocketing. Asia is a particular hot spot for development of outstanding medical and wellness facilities, largely because of demand from a rising middle class in the region, according to Josef Woodman, publisher of the medical travel guides Patients Beyond Borders.  

There is also plenty of activity closer to home. One example noted by Woodman, who travels the globe researching facilities, is a state-of-the-art medical facility in the Bahamas where patients can have their own doctor flown in from the U.S.

Despite growing treatment choices overseas, travel sellers in North America should focus on short-haul travel for patients seeking non-critical care such as testing or dental procedures, Woodman advised. “The likely candidate is not someone going to India for a serious procedure like a heart bypass,” he told Travel Market Report.

(See: Medical Travel: The Time for Agents is Now and Keep an Eye on Asia, Med Travel Expert Advises)

How Will Obamacare Impact Medical Tourism?
After the Supreme Court gave its seal of approval for the Affordable Care Act on June 28, Travel Market Report sought the opinions of medical travel experts regarding the impact of healthcare reform on the burgeoning medical travel market. The consensus was that the major drivers behind medical tourism likely will continue unimpeded.

“Americans and Canadians will continue to travel abroad and domestically for healthcare, whether it’s to a Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins or other facility,” said David Boucher, president of Companion Global Healthcare, a partner with Well-Being Travel). “They are looking for safety and service, which are both leading motivators to travel for healthcare. Price is only the third consideration.”

(See: Healthcare Reform Unlikely to Slow Medical Travel Growth, Experts Say)

Med Travel Advice: Think Globally, Act Locally
Why is medical travel growing into an important niche for travel sellers? Laura Carabello, publisher of Medical Travel Today, told Travel Market Report that the increasingly global nature of both business and health care is a key factor. Improved air access and the fact that medical facilities around the world are promoting themselves to medical travelers are among other forces, she said.

Carabello urged travel agents to look to their current clients, particularly those who are high income, as potential clients for medical tourism. “They should tell them about medical travel and about international spas and wellness centers,” she said. “They may even have clients who need treatments that aren’t available in the U.S.”

She also advised agents to get the word out in their communities by making presentations before local organizations. “This can be a real market differentiator for agents.”

(See: Globalization Seen Accelerating Growth of Medical Travel)

White House Tourism Strategy Encompasses Medical Travel
The appointment of Steven Thompson, CEO of Johns Hopkins Medical International, to the U.S. Travel and Tourism Advisory Board in February gave the medical travel industry representation in President Obama’s tourism initiative. Thompson is one of 32 members of the board, which advises the Commerce Department on policies and issues affecting travel and tourism.

“I enthusiastically accepted the appointment, due to the important and growing demand for U.S. education and health services coming from the international community,” Thompson told Travel Market Report.

“The adoption of travel policies that encourage and support growth in international travel are vital to these business sectors within our economy.”

(See: Med Travel Gets Voice in Obama’s Tourism Strategy)

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