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Medical tourism: The danger to our healthcare system and patients

Posted Mar 27 2009 10:02am

A recent article in the Chicago Tribune highlights Mexico as another popular destination for medical tourism (traveling abroad for medical care). While not exactly a new phenomenon, it is a rapidly growing industry, currently estimated at $60 billion by one estimate. Reasons for this growth include lower costs for devices and care, reduced waiting times to receive medical procedures, increased “ globalization and speedier transfer of information and communication,” and the ability to recuperate in a tropical paradise.

However, the risks are just as numbered. U.S. medical authorities call these destinations “ a medical Wild West, an unregulated environment where substandard providers can hang their shingle without the same oversight ” available domestically. In a New York Times article Dr. Sharon Kleefield, Harvard Medical School, says that “no matter how high [the foreign] hospital is rated, there are issues with regard to quality and safety when you travel for medical treatment.”

Even insurers and employers are leaning toward medical tourism packages, believing that the lower costs overseas translate to lower costs for them, too. The same article points to Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina’s subsidiary company, Companion Global Healthcare, and Hannaford supermarkets in Maine, both of which have hopped on the medical tourism bandwagon. Yet “the bulk of medical tourism candidates are uninsured and underinsured people paying their own bills and looking for low-cost alternatives to American care.”

Even with the potential medical hazards, the medical tourism industry is expected to continue expanding due to our rising healthcare costs in the U.S. The growth in this industry will have consequences. Healthcare, usually called the “recession-proof industry,” is now showing considerable signs of stress, to put it mildly. Each day hospitals must face decisions that affect their financial health, if not determine their solvency.

There are still healthcare organizations that remain optimistic during this difficult economic climate, of course. They may just now be located in Thailand, Turkey, Costa Rica, the Philippines…

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