Comparing the costs of (accidental) medical tourism

Whereas much of the attention in the medical travel sector is focused on medical tourism (i.e. where the primary reason for travel is some form of surgery or treatment), a more established and mature market sector is the provision of healthcare services for the tourist or business traveller who falls ill when abroad.

The structure and maturity of this sector means that it is far easier to gather comparative data such as the cost of healthcare and actual treatment in different countries. Cost management is in the hands of the international insurers, the travel insurance companies and the assistance companies who negotiate prices with hospital providers worldwide.A recent analysis of travel insurance claims, published by the UK based travel insurer, Sainsbury’s Travel Insurance, provides an insight into the variation in hospital costs across the world and the rising trend in hospital costs.

According to their analysis:
  • In 2009, a record number of people needed medical treatment whilst abroad.
  • The most expensive country for inpatient hospital treatment was the United States, with the average hospital visit costing £6,000.
  • The average cost of hospital treatment in a foreign country has climbed to £2,040 over the last 12 months, an increase of 6.25% year-on-year.
  • The most significant increase in treatment costs were seen in Turkey (+10%), the USA (+10%) and Spain (+7.5%).
  • Over the summer months (May to September), the most common reason for hospitalisation was gastroenteritis with the average bill for inpatient treatment amounting to £1,200.
  • The most expensive hospital bills were for those who suffered a heart attack abroad, resulting in medical expenses that averaged £12,500.

It’s interesting that the international assistance companies who deal with these "accidental" medical tourists have shown little or no interest in entering the medical tourism business. They have everything in place to become the world’s number one facilitator and blow everyone else out of the market:

  • They have a network of “approved” hospitals around the world.
  • They facilitate treatment for thousands of international patients in foreign countries every day.
  • They have call centres to deal with patient enquiries.
  • They have extensive technology and systems to manage the patient process.
  • They have people on the ground in major destinations who can provide local support.
  • They have comparative data on treatment outcomes and comparative costs in hospitals around the world.

So, why haven’t companies like Europ Assistance, Mondial Assistance and AXA Assistance entered the medical tourism market and used their expertise to attain a dominant market position?

The answer is probably quite simple. The medical tourism market is just not big enough to be attractive to them, nor worth the hassle. Which is good news for the existing operators...but puts the medical tourism market opportunity in perspective compared to the long established international assistance market.