When International Hospital Corp. opened the first of its 10 hospitals spread throughout Brazil, Costa Rica and Mexico, the Dallas-based providers sole focus was to offer the kind of high-quality healthcare that had long prompted residents of those countries to travel to the U.S. for treatment.
That was in 1992. Over the past five years, however, a reverse pull has been felt, said Joseph Barcie, president of centralized services for IHC. The provider has found itself playing host to a steady increase of U.S. residents who are crossing borders in search of affordable, high-quality care. Its surprised us, said Barcie, who noted 11% of IHCs patients now fall into the category of medical touristspatients traveling abroad for care. Sixty-six percent of those patients are from the U.S.
IHCs medical-tourist population is increasing so steadily that late last year the provider created a medical-value travel department to work with foreign patients home-based physicians in coordinating pre- and post-operative care, as well as travel arrangements. The department has grown from a single employee to eight in just six months.
According to a forthcoming study conducted by the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, IHCs experience speaks to an emerging trend in medical tourism: The number of patients leaving the U.S. for medical treatment is growing at a faster rate than the number of patients coming in for treatment, said Paul Keckley, executive director of the center. And while such travel can reduce healthcare costs for Americans needing expensive surgeries and treatments, if the trend continues, it is likely to mean the loss of billions of dollars annually for U.S. healthcare providers.
The study, which was provided in advance of publication to Modern Healthcare exclusively, projects U.S. healthcare providers will lose nearly $16 billion in revenue this year to outbound medical tourism. That figure is expected to grow to $68 billion by 2010, up 325%. The number of Americans traveling abroad for care is expected to reach 6 million in 2010, up 700% from 750,000 in 2007, according to the findings. By comparison, 417,000 foreign residents traveled to the U.S. for treatment in 2007, and that number is expected to increase by fewer than 40,000 patients by 2010, up about 10%.
In 2006, according to the American Hospital Association, U.S. hospitals saw net revenue of $587.1 billion, so the $16 billion projected to be spent at overseas hospitals this year amounts to nearly 3% of that.
A loss of earnings isnt the only potential impact of a growing medical tourism trend. As other countries improve their healthcare systems and educational opportunities, often through partnerships with large U.S.-based medical institutions, the U.S. is seeing a growing number of foreign-born providers and expatriates choosing to remain in or return to their countries of origin to practice. That may ultimately mean the U.S., which has long held an advantage in attracting highly qualified healthcare workers, will face greater competition in hiring physicians and nurses.
But while medical travel by U.S. patients is indeed a growing phenomenon, researchers and medical experts involved in the field acknowledge that its too soon to know whether the growth can be sustained and how large an impact it will ultimately have on U.S. providers. Experts cite the lack of insurance coverage for overseas treatment and liability issues as caveats for the industrys expansion.