Medical Travel: Access to Savings and Quality Healthcare

Medical assistant and worl map representing medical travel
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America’s employers and their employees are feeling the impact of new regulations and reforms regarding healthcare, insurance and coverage. More than ever, today’s consumers are invested in their own healthcare - with increased deductibles and copays hitting personal budgets.  

Many companies are also struggling with their healthcare benefits packages in order to operate sustainable business practices.

As a result of these market forces, many employers are now adopting an innovative new approach to healthcare that saves money while ensuring quality care: .

Medical travel - sometimes called medical tourism - is the term used to describe the opportunity to travel to a Center for Excellence (COE) in the United States or another country for high quality, more affordable surgical procedures or episodes of treatment. 

The opportunity for cost savings coupled with better medical outcomes is very attractive as companies of every size and market niche begin to include this option in their benefit platforms.  

Domestic Medical Travel

Looking at the top 50 U.S. employers - Walmart, Lowe's, and Boeing, to name a few - about 15% of these employers have introduced domestic medical travel programs.  The nation’s largest employers continue to pursue and implement this benefit option, leveraging their purchasing power to negotiate favorable provider contracts.


Following this trend, the opportunity for direct contracting with Centers of Excellence is also gaining momentum with mid- to small market employers that are aggregating their buying power to replicate domestic medical travel arrangements. In general, these programs cover the medical treatment and all travel and accommodation expenses for the patient and a companion.

Domestic medical travel has seen a spike in popularity primarily because of the heightened demand for outpatient surgery. The number of outpatient procedures done in the U.S. tripled between 1999 and 2005.

Advanced medical technology has enabled patients to return home a few hours after a procedure, rather than staying in the hospital for days. Outpatient surgeries account for about 75% of medical travel procedures.

To help employers create and launch a domestic medical travel program, a number of health management companies have developed expertise in this area. They help employers get the most out of gaining access to the country’s best hospitals and doctors at transparent prices.

These programs are effective because incentives, such as waived copays and deductibles, are built in to encourage employees to participate.

Advantages of Medical Travel

Key advantages of sending plan members to COEs is that these hospitals and ambulatory surgical centers must meet benchmarks for positive outcomes, low hospital-acquired infection rates, high patient satisfaction, advanced staff training and skills, and comprehensive patient data capture.

Furthermore, COEs have been shown to achieve better results for certain procedures, thus reducing complications and re-admissions.

This, in turn, helps to lower costs in terms of lost productivity and overall workforce health.

Seeking Treatment Overseas

Employers that experience the benefits of a domestic medical travel program are now exploring an international option.

For patients getting procedures in another country, top destinations include Costa Rica, India, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Turkey.

These destinations thrive because of a number of key factors:

  • Government and private sector investment in their healthcare infrastructure
  • Commitment to accreditation, quality assurance, and data transparency
  • Political transparency and social stability
  • Sustained reputation for clinical excellence
  • Successful adoption of best practices and state-of-the-art medical technology
  • Availability of internationally-trained, experienced medical staff

    Consider the average range of savings on procedures performed in these countries compared with the same procedures in the U.S.:

    • Brazil: 20-30%
    • Costa Rica: 45-65%
    • India: 65-90%
    • Malaysia: 65-80%
    • Mexico: 40-65%
    • Singapore: 25-40%
    • South Korea: 30-45%
    • Taiwan: 40-55%
    • Thailand: 50-75%
    • Turkey: 50-65%

    Patients travel overseas for procedures related to cosmetic surgery, dentistry, cardiovascular, orthopedics, cancer, reproduction, and weight loss. Even when travel expenses are factored in - for both the patient and a travel companion - the savings are quite substantial.

    According to Medical Tourism Facts and Figures 2015, there were between 400,000-700,000 outbound American medical travelers last year, although these were not usually arranged through employers.

    It’s important to keep in mind that medical tourism to other countries carries some risks. For instance, on returning home, patients who experience complications or infections have limited contact with the overseas surgeon.

    Also, the U.S. government warns that malpractice laws in each nation can vary, and there is often no legal recourse for poor outcomes.  However, there are now insurance policies available to protect employers from liabilities associated with international medical care. There are also policies to shield individuals from any additional costs that they may incur for additional care that is required.

    In today’s healthcare reform era, travel surgery programs that provide high quality surgical care at affordable rates – and not simply the best deal – represent a critical strategy for maintaining the bottom line.

    As U.S. healthcare costs continue to rise, and technology and care levels at facilities overseas improve, domestic and international medical travel options are expected to increase. They will integrate into the new fabric of the U.S. healthcare system for the benefit of employers and consumers alike.