Medical tourism could soon increase. What's that mean for US doctors?
Editor's note: Laura Carabello is the Executive Editor and Publisher of Medical Travel Today. MD Magazine asked for her take on what will happen to "medical tourism" if people lose their health coverage or face higher costs.
The impending repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has created uncertainty in the US healthcare marketplace. As the existing system is dismantled, and programs shut down or replaced, many Americans will be scrambling to access truly affordable, quality care.
This phenomenon has many implications for US physicians as people in every market sector begins to explore their options — from uninsured individuals to Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries, as well as employees covered by self-funded companies.
If the ranks of the uninsured grow as a result of the demise of the ACA, medical travel options could represent an ideal solution. According to the research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in January 24, 2017, even after implementation of the ACA, 15% of people with chronic diseases still lacked health insurance coverage and more than a quarter of them didn't get a checkup in 2014. About 23% of people with chronic disease went without care because they found that costs were still too high.
This signals a potential boon for the international medical travel industry, further propelling the steady growth it has experienced in recent years. Medical travel was valued at $439 billion, and is projected to grow 25% a year over the next decade. In 2016, an estimated 1.4 million Americans traveled abroad for a medical procedure.
US physicians may also find that even Medicaid beneficiaries and Medicare enrollees will be lured to hospitals and providers outside the US.
For Medicaid patients who remained optimistic that their home state would offer expanded coverage, their hopes are fading. Repeal of the ACA will leave millions of the poorest and sickest Americans without insurance. Many states may either abandon Medicaid expansion or be forced to significantly redesign their programs to ensure that individuals below 400% of the federal poverty level can receive affordable healthcare coverage and services.
While these low-income families may not have cash reserves to fund expensive care in the US, they might have the resources — or may be able to gather support from family and friends – to access affordable surgeries overseas.
As for Medicare enrollees, including 57 million senior citizens and disabled Americans, higher premiums, deductibles and cost-sharing could spark a shift toward medical travel, especially given the country’s aging population and the likelihood that many seniors will require surgery.
Seniors could face higher deductibles and co-payments for their Part A, which covers hospital stays, and higher premiums and deductibles for Part B, which pays for doctor visits and other services. Under a full repeal, Medicare enrollees may also lose some of their free preventative benefits, such as screenings for breast and colorectal cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
Self-insured employers are actively seeking to lower health-care costs and increase their financial margins, and they may opt to steer workers to more cost-effective Centers of Excellence outside their home state or region. As a result, and despite long-term relationships with their hometown physicians, patients will be incentivized to leave the country and access care at foreign hospitals that demonstrate quality care at lower cost. By waiving deductibles or copays — and even paying cash rewards for choosing the medical travel option – employers will prompt patients to make the decision to travel.
Further raising patients' comfort levels regarding medical travel is the increased quality of care now offered at international hospitals. This improvement is due to the success of knowledge transfer programs and training offered by US institutions and providers to hospitals worldwide. These collaborative efforts are bringing American ingenuity, sophisticated technology, administrative simplification and advanced techniques to hospitals in Mexico and throughout the Caribbean, as well as to locations as far away as Malta and the United Arab Emirates.
If the ACA is fully repealed, distinct changes in medical travel patterns are expected.
While Americans traditionally traveled out of the country to access elective procedures -- dental care, esthetic surgeries or wellness care not typically included in their health benefits packages — they are now more likely to seek reliable medical treatment for complex conditions in destinations that are cross-border but only requiring three to four hours of travel time.
Hospitals and providers in the Latin America-Caribbean Region are likely to become destinations of choice for employers, as well as individuals. The lure of less expensive and shorter travel, reduced language barriers, and more cultural familiarity are appealing to all. The challenge will be to access benchmarks for selecting providers, ascertaining costs, determining legal recourse regarding less-than-optimal outcomes and other issues. Without the guidance of a health plan or administrator, this process may be challenging to many.
With the steady rise of medical travel, a growing number of US physicians will encounter patients seeking consultation prior to getting treatment abroad. This means providing medical records or consulting directly with the international team.
Physicians will also encounter more patients who require follow-up care after undergoing a procedure in another country. In this case, it will be important to access treatment information and discharge papers from the overseas hospital, as well as records for blood work, X-rays or other screenings for use as a roadmap for the patient’s post-care. Physicians may also be reticent to perform additional services that may be required following care performed outside the US and not in their control.
Beyond the medical details, physicians need to understand every aspect of medical travel to deal with the increased competition and cost pressures. They may want to look into making improvements and upgrading services to justify the expense of treatments here in the United States. The strongest transformation will occur in what is today the most lucrative part of the industry: high-cost surgeries and procedures. Keep in mind that US treatment costs often justify travel elsewhere, despite additional travel and accommodation costs.
Going forward, physicians can play a role in guiding patients to seek the best possible care — wherever it is available -- while helping them understand the benefits and potential risks of medical travel.