Will 2012 be the year that medical travel takes off?
With PepsiCo’s announcement last month that it will cover certain medical travel costs for its 250,000 domestic employees, medical travel experts say it could well be.
They also say agents have an important role to play in this emerging travel niche, but only if they get the specialized training it requires.
And while the future of medical travel looks bright, the experts also say much is dependent on global economic and safety issues.
PepsiCo move will spur interest
PepsiCo’s decision to provide medical travel benefits reflects growing interest by the corporate world in the potential cost savings of medical travel. Previous milestones included a partnership by Lowes, the home improvement chain, with the Cleveland Clinic, and Hanaford supermarkets’ medical travel health insurance benefit.
The PepsiCo announcement will raise awareness and generate momentum for other companies to offer medical travel benefits, experts said.
“Look for the employer market to begin generating acceptance [of medical travel],” said Laura Carabello, publisher of Medical Travel Today newsletter, pointing to one opportunity in medical travel for 2012.
“The key will be to provide education on a variety of destinations so that employees feel comfortable and safe in traveling to a specific country.”
Will insurance-paid med travel get off the ground?
Indeed, the “big question” for 2012 is “whether corporate or insurer paid medical travel will get off the ground,” said Keith Pollard, managing director of the UK’s Treatment Abroad, writing in the International Medical Travel Journal.
“Will employers and insurers see medical travel as a realistic and credible option to reduce healthcare costs? And will their client and subscriber base actually ‘buy in’ to the medical travel option if it is offered to them?”
An expanding role for agents
Assuming the answer is yes, travel agents can position themselves to provide the specialized medical travel logistics that are usually ignored in partnerships between the corporations and the healthcare providers, said Maria K. Todd, a former travel agent who is CEO of Mercury Healthcare International.
The fact that medical facilities increasingly offer "all-in-one" medical travel packages will make it easier for agents to develop this niche, said Josef Woodman, editor and publisher of the Patients Beyond Borders medical travel guides.
American medical travelers, Woodman added, have increasingly more choices because JCI, the US-based accreditation agency for international hospitals, has now accredited nearly 500 facilities worldwide.
Specialized training required
Acquiring and maintaining the know-how to manage the complexity of patients' travel needs will continue to be the major challenge for travel agents in 2012, agreed Woodman, Carabello and Todd.
“Specialized training is still required for all but the simplest of medical travel,” said Woodman.
Education and training on the specialized needs of medical travelers is the best way for travel agents to prepare themselves to serve this market, according to the experts.
“Education and a long-term commitment are necessary,” said Kiki Bright, co-owner of Thailand Medical Travel and Tourism, a San Diego-based division of International Travel Services, based in Lihue, Hawaii.
Well-Being Conference provides agent training
A major step toward providing agents with that training will come in June with the 2012 Well-Being Travel Conference, scheduled for June 19 to 21 in Scottsdale, Ariz. (See sidebar.)
It will be the first-ever conference on medial travel focused specifically on travel agent education, said Anne Marie Moebes, executive vice president of Well-Being Travel, a co-sponsor of the event with Travel Market Report.
Med travel fams for agents
Agents in 2012 will have more opportunities to acquire firsthand experience in medical travel destinations via familiarization trips offered by governments seeking to develop medical travel, often as part of their tourism strategies, said Bright, who recommends that travel sellers specialize in a specific destination or healthcare service.
Safety, the economy loom as challenges
Among challenges in the year ahead for medical travel will be worries about safety, noted Carabello. “It is a real concern, especially with headlines about drug traffickers and others preying on Americans.”
The economy also looms as a challenge. People are postponing cosmetic procedures, a major segment of the medical travel market from the U.S, Bright said.
But the sluggish economy may actually boost “destinations that offer quality care at a much lower price tag, as they will be even more attractive” options for medical travelers from the U.S., Carabello said.
Pollard noted that consumers “will dig deep for services such as infertility treatment, stem cell treatment, and for surgery which is essential, life-saving or life changing.”