Travel agents should “take a good long look” at specializing in the growing short-haul market in the Southwest and Southeast for medical travel to Mexico and Central America.
That’s where there’s a real opportunity for agents to enter the medical travel niche, according to Josef Woodman, editor and publisher of the medical travel guides Patients Beyond Borders.
Meeting a need
Woodman cited growing demand among baby boomers for medical travel to short-haul destinations like Costa Rica for dental and cosmetic procedures, according to Woodman.
He gave an example of a woman who used the money she saved by having dental procedures abroad to treat herself to some nip-and-tuck procedures.
Twenty hospitals in Mexico and Central America are now accredited by the not-for-profit Joint Commission International (JCI), according to Woodman. JCI is the international arm of the Joint Commission, which accredits medical facilities in the U.S.
Agencies in the California and Southwest markets should focus on medical travel to Mexico, because of the destination’s proximity, he advised. For agencies serving Miami, Atlanta and New Orleans, Costa Rica and Panama, in addition to Mexico, are prime medical travel destinations, he said.
What do agents need to know to enter the medical travel niche?
“Medical travel requires knowledge of the medical and the patient side of the business. The travel agent needs to be aware of ‘travel-ability’ issues – including whether a patient is healthy enough to travel,” Woodman said.
“Without that knowledge of the medical travel business and the patient, it will be difficult for an agent to shepherd a patient into a successful medical travel experience. It is not rocket science, but it does demand more than just hanging out a shingle.”
Agents also need to be familiar with the infrastructure developing around medical travel. This infrastructure includes English-speaking medical travel specialists at foreign facilities, translation services, ground transportation specialists, telecom services, special accommodations at hotels, tour arrangers for companion travelers, and travel insurance providers.
“Often the hospitals handle a lot of that. It is just that the agent needs to know where to access the services,” he said.
The revenue potential for agents in short-haul medical travel is enormous, Woodman said.
“It’s a lot higher than for a junket to Cancun. You have patients traveling for $2,000 and upwards to $20,000, with opportunities for a revenue share with service providers.”
Agents can earn additional revenue by making arrangements for travelers accompanying patients.
Woodman sees two avenues for agencies to enter into and succeed in medical travel.
One is establishing a national franchise. (See sidebar.) This could involve partnering with facilities in short-haul medical travel destinations.
The other avenue would be partnering with medical travel facilitators that serve destinations an agency already specializes in. Facilitators, which arrange treatment abroad, may be looking to outsource the travel bookings part of the business, according to Woodman.
Right now, medical travel facilitators are a huge cottage industry that is dominated by no one and filled with hundreds of small players with no branding, he noted.
Agents new to medical travel might want to work first with patients going for treatments that are not as invasive as heart bypass or joint replacement – such as health screenings, dental work and cosmetic procedures.
Even then, from a medical travel standpoint, “you have to do a lot to successfully shepherd that patient through – which is why you don’t see a lot a of agents getting into this field,” said Woodman.