Medical Travel: New Opportunities for Agents

by David Boucher
Medical Travel: New Opportunities for Agents

Following is the latest in a series of guest columns from the president of Companion Global Healthcare.

I recently reported that most Americans who seek surgical destinations overseas do so for reasons of safety, service and savings, while most Canadians travel internationally for medical care to avoid queues.   

Some of the spike in health-related travel is due to the emergence of top-notch wellness services that both prevent and heal. And part of the increasing demand is due to aging populations in developed countries who have both the time and money to travel for their health.

But there’s another factor, one that the popular media predicted back in 2007. American employers increasingly are turning to medical travel as a way to mitigate the growing costs of employee benefits, as these have been increasing by 15% to 25%, year over year over year.

Multinationals sign on
Over the past couple of years, several large marquis employers, including Loews, Walmart and PepsiCo, began directing employees and dependents to a limited number of domestic hospitals located outside their home areas.  

This development is a signal that the safest and most affordable surgical care might not be at an employee’s local hospital.

And these are not tiny mom and pop companies. Together Loews, Walmart and PepsiCo employ more than 1.5 million people.

Today an increasing number of U.S. employers feel comfortable having their employees consider treatment at hospitals overseas as well.

Kevin’s new knee
For a specific example, direct your attention to the Facebook page Kevin's New Knee (https://www.facebook.com/KevinsNewKnee) where this traveler’s explains why he decided to travel abroad for a total knee replacement and describes the experience.

When Kevin learned that his employer’s benefit plan would waive his more than $4,000 personal out-of-pocket financial responsibility, he was all-ears about the idea of leaving the U.S. for his surgery.

Kevin decided on Ramsey-Sime Darby Medical Center in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for his care. A travel agency was engaged to coordinate his air travel plans, and off he went. His Facebook page chronicles the rest.

So the media’s prediction that Americans would begin traveling abroad for surgery – with their employer’s assistance – has become reality. And it will occur with increasing frequency as patient wait times in the U.S. lengthen, one of the effects from the Affordable Care Act that I expect to see.

Travel agents, take note
The opportunities for travel agencies in this market abound.

Historically, most medical travel facilitators are neither licensed nor experienced travel agents. So most of us contract with existing travel arrangers.

For example, a company like Companion Global Healthcare might vet international hospitals, and we’ll work directly with the consumer to assist in their destination selection.

But we refer the consumer to a travel agent for their travel arrangements.

Medical travelers need agents
Most will need air travel, and well over 90% of our medical travelers have a companion accompany them, so for agents that’s twice the opportunity.  

Hotel bookings are involved in nearly 100% of cases, as almost all discharged patients remain for at least a week in the destination where they underwent surgery or treatment.  

And it is very common for travelers to want day excursions.

Companion Global recommends that patients consider such excursions before their care, however their companions might want to plan at least half-day outings after the patient is a couple of days post-surgery.

So 2014 offers exciting times for travel agents in the medical travel arena. Happy contrails. The sky’s the limit!

David Boucher is president and chief operating officer of Companion Global Healthcare, a medical travel facilitation and HR benefits consultancy. Companion Global Healthcare is a partner to Well-Being Travel, a sister company to Travel Market Report.

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