The CDC estimates that three-quarters of a million U.S. residents travel abroad for medical care each year. These medical tourists fly overseas for everything from dentistry to heart surgery – for the sake of saving money on healthcare or in seeking procedures not approved in the U.S. The practice is not without risk. As the CDC points out, medical tourists face a range of potential issues – communication problems due to language differences, less stringent safety regulations that increase risk of accidental infection transmission, counterfeit medications and increased health risks for post-surgery travelers. Still, medical tourism is attracting attention – and not just from eager patients. Some American hospitals are turning to medical marketing to develop their own medical tourism attractions.
Modern Healthcare spoke to Valorie Crooks, a health geographer with Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, who has seen an increasing number of Canadians visit the U.S. to avoid the wait lists. While the U.S. healthcare system may be more sophisticated than those in regions that offer the greatest bargains, there are risks for medical tourists whether they are travelling to Seattle or Singapore. One consideration? “Physicians are left to sort of figure out if and how they're going to follow up on orders from a jurisdiction that is not only not local but is coming from an entirely different country.” Hospitals should consider return travel issues, as well as follow-up care requirements such as physical therapy, and make sure prospective ‘tourists’ understand the risks.
Targeting Consumers in Canada
In Modern Healthcare’s report on the growth of U.S.-based medical tourism, it cited the efforts by some hospitals to market to Canadians.
- Some hospitals, physicians and other care providers in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, New York work with a Buffalo-based medical tourism agency to attract patients from Toronto and eastern regions of Canada.
- A group of healthcare providers has been working to turn Seattle into a medical tourism destination
- Northwest Specialty Hospital (NSH) in Post Falls, Idaho is promoting a number of orthopedic and bariatric procedures that have notoriously long wait times in Canada
In addition to posting the prices for each procedure, which includes the cost of staying at the luxurious Coeur d’Alene Resort, the NSH website includes an overview of the area attractions including the golf, skiing, amusement parks, casinos and more.
Hospitals aren’t marketing their services on price like those in Costa Rica or Thailand. Instead, they’re appealing to Canadians with their speed. Despite a 10-year effort by the Canadian government to reduce wait times for a wide range of procedures, wait times for joint replacements, in particular, have not improved significantly. Depending on the region, Canadians may wait anywhere from 76 to more than 400 days for their procedure. And that’s after the doctor has approved the procedure. One former medical tourist at NSH had experienced knee problems for more than 10 years but was told he would not be able to receive a knee replacement until age 55. Rather than waiting several more years – just to move onto another waiting list – he and his wife jumped in a car and headed for Idaho. He said, “You know what, to fix the problem, I'd do it again in a heartbeat.”
From NSH CEO Rick Rasmussen’s point of view, medical tourism is a win-win situation. The hospital gets new patients. The resort picks the medical tourists up at the airport, checks the patient and spouse into the hotel, and the spouse gets to enjoy some R&R during the patient’s hospital stay for a total knee replacement. He says, “And they're back out playing curling this winter rather than waiting, you know, two years.”
Marketing Medical Tourism at Home
Actually, some hospitals are old hands at medical tourism in a different form. Programs like the Cleveland Clinic’s arrangement with Lowe’s – which is self-insured – allows Lowe’s employees to get open-heart surgery and other cardiac procedures at the top-ranked hospital while the company enjoys a lower cost for the care. As hospitals expand on these opportunities, they may also find opportunities to market their services to individual consumers. The challenge will be identifying the most likely consumers. Psychographic segmentation can help healthcare organizations identify consumers that are the most likely candidates for medical tourism based on their distinct attitudes towards healthcare and wellness.
The 2015 c2b Consumer Diagnostic found that one psychographic segment, in particular, would be a likely candidate for medical tourism: Self Achievers. Self Achievers are more likely to invest in their health and wellness than the other four psychographic segments identified in the c2b Consumer Diagnostic; a couple data points bear this out:
Note: Each segment is assigned a column letter a-e. A letter appearing below the percentage means that the percentage is statistically greater, at 95% confidence, than the percentage in that letter’s corresponding column.
Key to success with Self Achievers is that they are motivated by things that are unique to this segment, and messaging (marketing or education) must reflect these communication preferences to be successful.
By understanding consumers better, hospitals can attract new patients – on local, regional and even national levels – with relevant, targeted medical marketing communications, and get a slice of the estimated $55 billion in medical tourism dollars spent annually.