A former travel agent turned healthcare executive has some advice for travel agents eyeing the medical travel market: know what you are getting into.
Maria K. Todd is CEO of Mercury Healthcare, a Denver-based globally integrated health delivery system – “a global PPO on steroids,” as Todd describes it. She also heads up the Managed Care Institute, a nonprofit educational organization, has authored two industry textbooks on medical travel and tourism, and holds a Master of Health Administration and a PhD in her domain area. Before entering the healthcare industry Todd worked as chief travel counselor for the East Florida Division-AAA.
The U.S. medical travel market is not yet big enough to sustain a travel agency that is solely focused on the niche, she told Travel Market Report. She advises agents interested in cultivating medical travel and tourism sales to stair-step into the market by first focusing on selling wellness travel to domestic and international spas.
Todd has developed an intensive course, “Medical Travel Facilitation for Professional Travel Agents," offered through the Managed Care Institute.
“As a former travel agent, I know what agents are supposed to know on the travel side,” she said. “There’s so much more to this than adding a wheelchair request to a PNR and assuming that the airline will handle it from there.”
The first course, held in November 2010, included 12 travel agent participants. Todd plans to conduct three courses each year, with a maximum of 15 participants in each; dates had not been set at press time.
As an experienced participant in both the travel and healthcare industries, Todd is uniquely positioned for involvement with medical travel and tourism. Travel Market Report spoke with her about the travel agent course she conducts, and about what agents need to know about the niche market.
Why is it so important for agents to understand this particular niche?
Todd: Medical travel is more complicated than tourism without a healthcare objective. No travel agent wants her client to get hurt or suffer needlessly due to lack of understanding or planning for the nature of the illness, and recuperation comfort of the client. Travel counselors have to think beyond the basics to have a plan and a procedure in the event that their client has an unrelated complication, or encounters cultural elements they didn’t expect, or for which they were unprepared.
Travel agents also have to be aware of medical travel facilitators – the companies that arrange for care at a medical facility – and be sure they are legitimate companies and not quick-buck artists with a laptop and a Blackberry – akin to the travel agent ID card mills that prey on travel consumers.
What does the training cover?
Todd: It starts from understanding what health travel and medical tourism is – and isn’t. From there, it goes into basic skills sets that are needed to keep clients (and agents) safe, and help agents do their best to deliver an excellent experience for their client.
The class also affords an authoritative insight into the healthcare domain – its language, its nuances, and how travel professionals can pair what they already know with this other side of the combination. And it will give travel agents insight into pricing and contracting with providers, so they don’t get the ‘we see you coming’ inflated rate quotes.
Will those who complete the course receive a designation of some sort?
Todd: At this time it will be a certificate of completion. Agents can pair the certificate of completion with a syllabus to show what they have studied and passed. As we expand the curriculum, we are going to have physicians and nurses continue to develop courses in health, and accountants and lawyers develop other courses so that we can apply for CPE (continuing professional education) credit through a nationally recognized institution.
What should travel agents know before getting involved in medical travel?
Todd: They can be held liable for their actions, their product and their mishaps, and their professional liability insurance may not cover them if they act outside their scope and training. They have to establish policies, procedures and workflows that are as serious as their GDS credentials.
What issues/challenges face travel agents who serve medical travelers?
Todd: Lack of understanding of medical terminology, the surgical procedures themselves, and lack of anatomy and physiology training, especially as it relates to enduring high altitudes and pressurized cabins after surgery.
Also, knowing about post operative wounds and operative sites and how to mitigate problems associated with getting up from an airplane seat, sliding down the aisle, placing luggage in overhead space, special meals – even things like extended minimum connecting times in major airports. Then there’s the whole healthcare complex, with data privacy and security regulations in every country.
What advantages/expertise do travel industry professionals bring to the medical travel marketplace?
Todd: They know the hotels, the air service, the air terminals, what can go wrong and how to plan in advance if something happens like a misconnect, an oversold bump, etc. They just have to pair it with the medical side and understand some of the corollaries when the two are blended. The opposite is true for medical-only people who now want to extend themselves into the logistical planning in the travel space.
How can travel agents best serve the medical travel market – both customers and the organizations providing medical services?
Todd: They know their customers better than a startup medical travel facilitator that knows neither travel nor healthcare but has a laptop and a Blackberry and got a few contracts executed with providers. If agents don’t serve their client’s needs, their client will find someone who will. They could lose a client for good.
Medical Travel Facilitation for Professional Travel Agents. Five-day intensive workshop offered onsite only in Denver, Colo., through the non-profit Managed Care Institute. Cost: $1,495. http://managedcareinstitute.com/focus/mttraining/39-mtftravag.htm