Medical tourism will only grow in importance as a lucrative niche for agents, given the increasingly global nature of business and healthcare.
This is the view of Laura Carabello, publisher of the online newsletter Medical Travel Today, and a scheduled speaker at the Well-Being Travel Conference on July 19-21 at the Phoenician resort in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Carabello explained some of the forces at work behind the medical and wellness tourism trends in a conversation with Travel Market Report.
What forces are making medical travel a strong potential niche for agents?
Carabello: Business and healthcare are becoming more global all the time – and medical travel is a piece of this. I was coming through Newark airport last night and noticed a banner from Continental that said, ‘There is no such thing as foreign anymore.’ It’s true. Everything is global.
The potential for medical tourism is far greater now than it was even 10 years ago because air accessibility has become so much better. So we have the travel industry to thank for this.
Medical travel is poised to become a standard benefit from employers because of this global situation. U.S. employers are beginning to look at medical travel opportunities for their workforces. And it goes beyond cost savings, although that’s substantial.
Many people think of medical travel as being international travel. But there’s more to it, isn’t there?
Carabello: It doesn’t mean just traveling overseas. Domestic is also big. People are traveling from California to New York for healthcare and vice versa. And the numbers of people traveling to the U.S. from other parts of the world for healthcare is big as well. People (from abroad) view the U.S. as having opportunities for healthcare.
Facilities are promoting their healthcare capabilities (to medical travelers) – and not just famous places. Sometimes it’s coming from places like community hospitals that have excess capacity.
Are consumers wary of medical travel?
Carabello: The acceptance level of medical travel has changed from even a year ago. Medical tourism has gotten more media attention, so there’s greater awareness. This has really accelerated over the past year.
There is a palpable change in the perception of healthcare that is available overseas. People used to think that good care was not available overseas.
What’s the impact of healthcare reform on medical tourism?
Carabello: Healthcare reform is still a big question mark, a big wild card. Costs could go up, access could diminish. So it could mean a big boost to medical travel. It could make even more economic sense to go outside the country for care.
How should agents develop this business?
Carabello: Agents should look to their current clients, especially if they are already serving corporate or high-income clients. They should tell them about medical travel and about international spas and wellness centers. They may even have clients who need treatments that aren’t available in the U.S.
Let your customers know you can assist with this kind of travel.
Get the word out beyond your current customers as well. Do talks at Rotary clubs, women’s organizations. Use the local or business press. Don’t just do the same old presentation – let the public know what you can do. This can be a real market differentiator for agents.
Are there potential clients who might be overlooked?
Carabello: A surprising number of people do not have medical insurance – and it doesn’t mean they are poor. They may have a high income, but just don’t have insurance. This makes them likely candidates for traveling overseas to save money on treatment. Don’t assume that all of your clients are well-covered.
What other kind of knowledge should agents seek?
Carabello: The fact that more companies are offering health savings accounts (HSAs) is a factor. The agent should look into them and understand what they are.
Find out which of your clients have HSAs. The employees who take advantage of HSAs can access special funds for healthcare and use them for discretionary spending, including traveling outside the country for care. It could possibly mean a trip to Bali to go to a wellness spa.
Do you have any caveats for agents?
Carabello: Agents need to read between the lines. Not everything in the media is reliable. Make sure your sources are reliable. Investigate, do a little digging.
If you hear about a wellness center, check it out, just as you would any hotel. In fact, this is even more important than it is with an ordinary hotel. Talk to people who have been there, do a site inspection.
If medical procedures are involved, always work with a reputable medical travel facilitator who has vetted the facilities.
You have to be careful.
What do you think is the long-term outlook for wellness travel?
Carabello: The interest in wellness keeps getting bigger, but it is pricey. It’s for a certain type of traveler that has discretionary income. Of course, it’s important to emphasize that wellness travel doesn’t have to mean going to a faraway destination. There may be wonderful wellness resorts not far from where people live.
Not only is there interest in health now, there are greater health problems. There’s growing obesity and diabetes – 50% of the population may have it by 2020. Chronic illness is a big problem. People are sedentary and stressed, so they are looking for solutions.
Well-Being Travel Conference