Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Choosing The Right Medical Tourism Company

I won't go here into whether US medical tourists should deal directly with foreign doctors / hospitals or use one of the several medical tourism companies that offer to help facilitate the process. That can be the subject of a separate post. The latter option certainly makes things easier for most people.

I'll proceed from the point where you or your loved one are (a) exploring medical tourism as an option for your condition and circumstances, and (b) planning to use one of the "free" medical tourism operators in case you go abroad.

Since US insurers have been tardy about offering medical tourism solutions with the right incentives, I'll also assume you're individuals who are planning this on your own, and paying mainly or entirely out of pocket.

You'll likely know about these operators either through medical tourism accounts in the media, or typing something like "medical tourism" in a search engine like Google and seeing the sponsored and unsponsored links leading up to these operators' websites. You'll probably see about half a dozen to about a dozen options. You may like to study all the websites, and perhaps also Google the names of the medical tourism companies to see if any relevant stories or references about them come up.

I know some "good" medical tourism companies but none of them is anywhere near ideal in my view. So I won't name any companies, and leave you to choose one based on your own judgement. But listed below are some of the key factors that should help your decision:
  • Credentials of the management team: Does the company list its management and their bios? What is their background and experience, and how relevant is it to healthcare and the services they are offering? Do they have certified doctors and/or nurses to help or advise you?
  • Who are the foreign partner doctors and hospitals? The choice of the doctor for your specific procedure, followed by choice of the hospital are the two most important decisions, and it's a huge plus to have a company that allows you to see and evaluate both. Some people wonder how important is JCI accreditation for a hospital. This accreditation at least establishes a certain standard and demonstrates the hospital's interest in serving quality conscious medical tourists. It does not guarantee that the hospital is world class, or that there aren't better hospitals around. Still, given that over 100 hospitals worldwide are now JCI accredited and the list is growing, you are likely better off limiting yourself to JCI accredited hospitals, particularly for major surgeries
  • Access to live operators and relevant help: Most companies will have a phone contact number (often toll free) in addition to web-based query forms or email. You should call such numbers and have your questions answered. This will also give you a feel for the company. If you are kicked into voicemail or fail to reach someone live, that's not a good sign for two reasons: (a) It is indicative of a small operation that is not sufficiently or professionally staffed and (b) You may have similar problems contacting the company in real time if you need their help once you are abroad
  • How much information is out there? In general, having a lot of good, up to date and relevant information on the website (while avoiding clutter) is indicative of professionalism, aside from being useful to the patient.
  • How "open" is the site? Some sites have stopped showing their partner doctors and hospitals, because of cases where medical tourists have used the information to bypass the company and go directly to these providers. For the same reason, some sites require prior registration before allowing greater access, so that they can collect their marketing fee from the attending hospital even if the patient subsequently bypasses them. These developments are understandable though unfortunate. A free flow of information allows for comparisons and sounder choices by patients of medical tour operators
  • Information on medical procedures and pricing: In general, it is a good sign if the company posts some typical procedure prices and descriptions on its website. Beware of bait pricing, though some operators have been forced to adopt this practice because they'll be otherwise disadvantaged by their unscrupulous competitors
  • Services offered, the infrastructure and arrangements in the foreign location: You should compare the services being offered and whether/what you're being charged for them. Services include arranging for visas, transmitting medical records, getting appointments with the foreign doctor, travel arrangements, cell phone in the foreign country, meet and greet at the airport, having a companion or local contact in the foreign location, local transportation, etc.
  • Word of mouth: This is admittedly a tough one, but great if you can manage it. Talking to former customers/patients who used the company can be very useful so long as the company is not cherry-picking only those who they know are very satisfied or served well. If the company can somehow let you draw upon a "random sample" that can be a lot better. By random sample I mean that they describe and list the patients in general terms (to protect privacy) that they sent in an interval of time that you specify and let you pick the patient you'd like to talk to (if the patients are willing to do so, of course)
  • Testimonials: These can suffer from the selection bias I talk about above. That is, the company lists opinions of only the most satisfied customers and you've no idea about any horror stories. Still, some companies carry a very large number of detailed testimonials and video discussions that can be educative
  • News reports and media stories: This may not be a huge factor because the media can also be fooled by hype as in Bumrungrad's case (this is a hospital, not a medical tourism company.) But a lot of favorable media coverage of a company and the company's history can be reassuring. Plus, such a company will have a reputation to protect. Don't confine yourself to the stories listed on the companies' own websites - they will obviously exclude negative material. You should use search engines like Google and look through the "unsponsored" links to get more information. This is likely to be helpful even though companies can maneuver some high listings through SOE (search optimization engine) techniques

Most of these companies are paid a fixed percent of the package cost by the hospitals as marketing fees or commission. So they stand to earn more if you go to a more expensive hospital. This is just something you should be aware of, though they may advocate a more expensive option for bona fide health reasons and for your own well being.

In closing a little research and comparison shopping can very worthwhile. Good luck!

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