The medical travel sector is seeing solid growth in international patient numbers and expects the momentum to keep building in the months ahead, according to a new survey of 400 clinics, hospitals and medical tourism facilitators in 77 countries.
Sixty percent of respondents to the Medical Tourism Climate Survey 2013 reported growth in international patients during the past 12 months. The survey was conducted in February for the International Medical Travel Journal.
Fully 80% of all respondents said they expected the number of international patients to grow over the next year, and nearly half (49%) said they anticipated annual growth of more than 10% over the next five years.
Significance for travel agents
The survey results have positive implications for travel sellers interested in developing a medical travel niche by partnering with medical travel providers, according to Anne Marie Moebes, executive vice president of Well-Being Travel, a marketing group for travel agents and a sister company to Travel Market Report.
“This is a good litmus test and clearly demonstrates that the medical travel industry is bullish on the outlook for medical travel. It continues to be apparent that a strong distribution channel needs to be in place to handle this growth,” she said.
Travel agents can fill that role, Moebes suggested. “The travel seller is the knowledgeable professional who can provide a high-quality experience for the patient traveler, domestically and internationally, while allowing the health care provider to handle a high quality of care for the patient.”
Treatment growth areas
The survey also looked at issues affecting medical tourism growth as well as prime growth areas. Key findings include:
• Cosmetic surgery is expected to be the biggest growth area over the next five years (cited by 56% of the respondents).
• Dental treatment (43%), cancer treatment (43%) and infertility treatment (40%) are also expected to experience significant growth.
• The U.S., Thailand and Singapore were ranked by respondents as the leading destinations in terms of quality and range of services provided to international patients.
• India, Thailand and the U.S. were named the most popular destinations in terms of patient numbers.
• In five years’ time, India, Thailand and Turkey will draw the highest number of medical travelers, followed by the U.S., Germany and Singapore, respondents said.
• The U.K., U.S. and Russia were named as the leading source countries for international patients.
Impact of Obamacare
• Half the respondents believe the implementation of Obamacare will have no impact on the numbers of Americans traveling abroad for treatment.
• About one-third expect that Obamacare will increase the numbers traveling abroad, while a fifth think it will cause a decrease.
Questions U.S. ranking
While in agreement with the survey’s optimistic outlook on medical tourism, medical tourism experts contacted by Travel Market Report took issue with a few of the survey’s findings.
David Boucher, president of Companion Global Healthcare, said he was surprised that survey respondents ranked the U.S. among the top three medical tourism destinations, both in terms of quality of care and in patient numbers.
“Once outcomes data on international hospitals becomes transparent, I am confident that empirical evidence will not confirm this respondent opinion,” he said.
Boucher noted that a growing number of U.S. employers, among them PepsiCo, Lowes and Wal-Mart, “are modifying their benefit structure to incentivize their employees to seek the most effective care at their local airport, rather than their local hospital. These developments are not simply cost-based, they are due in part because of variability of outcomes.”
He also said that he believes “significantly more” international medical travelers seek health care services in countries other than the U.S. “In fact, it’s been suggested that two hospitals in Bangkok treat more international patients between the two of them than the total number of patients [global medical travelers] seeking care in the U.S.”
While finding the survey “useful and largely accurate,” Josef Woodman, publisher of the Patients Beyond Borders medical travel guides, took issue with a section of the survey detailing the services to international patients that the respondents said they offer.
The Medical Tourism Climate Survey 2013 concluded that “extensive support services are provided in the destination country for medical tourists by the provider organizations.”
But Woodman, who frequently travels overseas to medical tourism destinations, said many of the medical tourism providers may not be delivering the customer service they claim, particularly when it comes to responding to patient inquiries.
Mystery shopper results
“Patients Beyond Borders has worked with and ‘mystery-shopped’ hundreds of international tourism providers over the past six years,” he said. “Less than 15% of international providers that cite international services on their websites actually provide timely or useful response to a patient inquiry.”
Woodman cited this lack of follow-through on patient inquiries to be a “breach of customer service” that is a significant impediment to the growth of medical tourism. “International hospitals that don’t respond to patient inquiries should either figure out how to improve, or stop misleading patients.”