Medical Tourism: It Can Cut Costs, But is it Right for Your Employees?

Medical tourism can save costs, but it may not be right for every company, or every employee. (Photo by Dreamstime).

We’ve heard of quite a few schemes to cut health care costs. Certainly cutting coverage and switching insurance companies to save a buck are the less creative ways to do it. And you need things like HMO’s and wellness plans if you want some sort of control over the doctors and the habits of your employees.

Then there is medical tourism. You combine more routine but expensive medical work (like hip replacements, in vitro fertilization and heart valve replacements) with a trip to a country that can do it for a significant discount. Companies pick up most (if not all) of the cost, avoiding thousands of dollars of medical expenses in the process.

Sounds like a win/win right? But what happens if something goes wrong?

Medical tourism in a nutshell

I met with companies like Satori World Medical at the SHRM Annual Conference in 2009 to learn about medical tourism industry. While there are certainly some less reputable companies out there, most organizations seem to do their homework on this newer (to them) concept. And the idea is catching on as recently covered in CNN Money:

Companies are urgently looking for ways to trim health plan expenses, said Dr. Arnold Milstein, chief physician with benefits consulting firm Mercer’s Health & Benefits Group.

He says they recognize that travel surgery is an opportunity to save money on expensive procedures like knee and hip replacements, hysterectomies, and open heart surgeries.

Sending employees to India can lower surgical costs on average by 80 percent. “In the U.K., prices are about 25 percent less even after you take into account airfare and hotel ,” Milstein said.

And while some surgeries are better suited than others for overseas care, the appeal to employees is obvious: Free trips (to sometimes exotic locations), per diems, and even a percentage of the savings that aren’t really out of line for companies that offer the benefit.

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For a reward comes a risk

The industry has come under some intense scrutiny though. Most recently, an apparent “superbug” has impacted people from the U.S., Canada, U.K., and Australia who have had surgeries in either India or Pakistan. As Tim Cook writes in the Canadian Press:

Doctors in Alberta are warning people that there are risks involved in travelling to foreign lands to get medical help, and they’re citing a new antibiotic-resistant super bug emerging in southern Asia as a prime example.

The province confirmed Thursday that it had one reported case of infection in the spring. Dr. Gerry Predy, Medical Officer of Health, would say only that the individual had been in a hospital in India before being infected and was discharged after being treated back in Canada.

Dr. Mark Joffe, Alberta Health Services’ senior medical director, said anyone considering travel for medical treatment anywhere in the world should weigh the risks.

“I would advise individuals to look at their options carefully and to understand that there are consequences to decisions,” Joffe told a news conference.

While medical tourism providers continue to tout the safety of their programs (and many of them will correctly point to similar problems in North America or Europe as well), it only takes a few well publicized cases like this to put a scare into people. And with that, any hoped for medical savings can go down the drain quickly as employees opt to stay local, even at a greater cost.

Best practices

Depending on your situation though, medical tourism can still be an attractive option. Here are some key tips to make it run smoothly:

  1. Research the companies you’re looking to use. Ask for references, check news stories about them, Google them, etc. You cannot just assume that every provider is going to be suited for your company.
  2. Be prepared for the worst. We know what the worst is, right? Could you be confident in that situation to say that you made the best decisions possible? You better be able to do that.
  3. Watch the news. Keep an eye out on the news about medical tourism. Know what your employees might be hearing or seeing about it (especially as you look to implement).
  4. It’s an option, not a replacement. Making sure that people see this as a true benefit option, and not a replacement for something they would rather have done locally, is essential.
  5. Take a hard look at the costs. While the attractive cost is the driving force behind many of these plans, take a closer look. Do you need to update insurance? How much does travel eat into costs?
  6. Give your employees the facts. Give your employees resources to make the best decision. While your medical tourism provider may want you to provide their brochures, you should also have independent resources available to assist employees in their decision process.

While I could see the benefits of going overseas (and getting a well deserved vacation), I think I’m keeping my surgeries stateside for the time being.

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.