Medical Tourism Potential Yet to Be Fully Exploited

Sat, 09/05/2015 - 12:48

At a time when increased interconnectivity is helping to fuel globalized mindsets, it is not surprising that patients are increasingly looking for specialized healthcare services beyond their own borders. Medical tourism can offer patients from countries with high surgery costs access to high-quality medical procedures at affordable prices, and present enormous economic potential for developing markets. The global medical tourism business was estimated by the OECD in 2014 to be worth US$40 billion and countries like Thailand, Mexico, the US, Singapore, and India are among the most significant destinations. In Mexico, more than one million foreign patients are treated annually and, according to the Ministry of Economy, the medical tourism sector is expected to generate US$3.3 billion in 2015 and rise by further 7.3% by 2016 in accordance to figures cited by Dr. Jorge Alberto Villanueva Hernández of Puerto Vallarta’s CMQ Hospitals.

In 2012, the latest year for which figures are available, Mexico received one million medical tourists whereas Thailand hosted marginally more – 1.2 million as reported by Patients Beyond Borders. Today, Mexico is the preferred destination for many US citizens due to a variety of factors, including geographical proximity, low costs, highly trained specialists, a wide variety of procedures and treatments, cutting edge infrastructure, and high quality services with international accreditations. After all, the diseases affecting Mexicans are similar to those affecting US patients.

Insurance companies in the US are aware that many of their customers look for options abroad, and have devised policies that include medical treatments in other countries. Potential savings are estimated to range between 36-89% in the fields of oncology, cardiology, plastic surgery, odontology, and gastroenterology. A heart bypass costs US$27,000 in Mexico, compared to US$144,000 in the US. Knee replacement procedures cost 76% less in Mexico. The country also specializes in weight loss treatment and surgery, providing weight management programs to obese patients at 40-70% of the cost of treatment within the US. In addition to cost, quality is a crucial factor for patients making the decision to receive medical treatment abroad. According to the Health Tourism Report published by ProMéxico, Mexico has 122 hospitals certified by the General Health Council. There are currrently eight hosptials certifed by the international medical accreditation agency Joint Commission International (JCI) in the country. The most important destinations for medical tourism in Mexico are Baja California, Chihuahua, and Cancun, although Mexico City, Nuevo Leon, and Jalisco have more certified hospitals. Medical tourism associations and clusters play a compelling role in communicating new high-quality services and referring patients to the most appropriate hospitals. Baja Medical Tourism, Sonora Hospitality, Chihuahua Medical City, Monterrey Ciudad de la Salud, and Medical Travel Under the Sun in Cancun have several activities that promote medical tourism destinations in Mexico, as well as professional training for physicians. The hospitals at the forefront of medical tourism services include Christus Muguerza, Grupo Ángeles, CIMA, Galenia, San Javier, TecSalud, Ginequito, OCA, and ABC.

Improving public policy and infrastructure issues is crucial for supporting the development of this business. For instance, in Tijuana, a specific lane at the border was designated for people entering or leaving the country for medical reasons, which significantly increased the number of people visiting hospitals in that city. On the contrary, although it competes with other states for federal resources, Quintana Roo could prioritize updating infrastructure and training specialized doctors in its popular medical tourism destination of Cancun. Proméxico may have designated Tamaulipas, Chihuahua, and Sonora as possible health tourism destinations, but all three remain under travel warnings from the US State Department and, as a consequence, have not seen as significant an influx as the other, safer states.

Heavy promotion is required to ensure that Mexico’s real achievements in medical tourism no longer fly under the international radar. Authorities could be more aware of the advantages and impacts that medical tourism has in the country, developing a plan for creating the right conditions for incentivizing this business. Meanwhile, existing and potential health clusters could firm up their infrastructure and prioritize the attraction of foreign medical patients.