IMTJ looks at two profiles of medical facilitators

 

BY GIGI ONAG
At their best, medical-travel agents can play an essential role as intermediaries for global medical travel. For their home market they can identify overseas hospitals and physicians suitable for the needs of their clients, saving them time on research, and then can help facilitate the travel arrangements of their clients.

Canada
Overseas Medical Services (OMS) started operations in 2003. It has 11 partner hospitals in eight countries, including Tan Tock Seng Hospital and National University Hospital in Singapore, World Citi Med in the Philippines, Bumrungrad International Hospital in Thailand, Fortis Group of Hospitals in India, and Renji Hospital in China. The selection process is two-fold. Firstly, for a country to be included, the company looks at whether there is superior in-country infrastructure, near world-class medical facilities with high ratio of successful clinical outcomes, security and safety, fluency in English and attractive tourist spots. Then comes the selection of the facility.

 “Regardless of any international accreditation, if the hospital meets – during an on-site visit – my expectations of standard of international service and standard of international patient care, I agree to sign up with them on a 10 percent referral fee for non-transplant patients,” says OMS chief executive officer Aruna Th-Hollingshead. “Thirty-five years of international marketing experience, worldwide travel, combined with a medical background, has helped me to identify some of the best physicians and services available worldwide,” she adds.

The company tries to work with only one hospital in each destination unless it is a large country like China and India, and while the majority of OMS clients are from Canada, its medical travel patients also come from other countries like the United States, Japan, Algeria and Ethiopia.

OMS offers virtually all major medical procedures, including transplants, as well as elective cosmetic surgeries and dental work. Interestingly, the company observes Thailand, Singapore, India, the Philippines and Costa Rica are popular destinations for non-transplant procedures, while China and Colombia are popular for transplants.

“Our patients fall into three categories – retired senior citizens going for orthopaedic procedures like hip or knee replacement; patients between the ages of 30 and 60 for spinal procedures; and, aging baby boomers for cosmetic procedures. About 98 percent of our patients are from average income bracket,” Th-Hollingshead says.

On average, patients undergoing cosmetic surgery in Thailand spend about US$6,000 for the procedure with the additional cost of about US$1,200 for a two-week stay at the destination inclusive of accommodation, food and incidentals.

For a major operation, a patient pays an average of about US$16,000 for a spinal surgery with additional spending of US$2,000 on accommodation, food and incidentals for two weeks.

Having been a medical traveller herself in 2003, flying to southern India for a corrective cervical spine surgery which would have taken months on the wait list in Canada, Th-Hollingshead takes a personal interest with each patient especially in the post-operative care.

“We do routine weekly follow-up call up to six months (after the procedure) to assist the patient with any advice or issues. If they or their doctor has any issues which require the offshore physician’s consultation, we facilitate it promptly. To date, we have never had a case which had complications unless it was a terminal disease,” Th-Hollingshead says, adding that routine follow-ups for organ-transplant patients are offered for life.

As it continues to identify potential medical travel destinations, OMS is keen on getting one thing for its patients: “Zero wait time is really on top of the list. Other criteria such as doctors with high credentials, state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment, quality nursing care, medical concierge service and lower cost are already a given.”

The Philippines

Vinchu Lapid, managing director of Philippine-based Beautiphil Health Holidays, refers to her company as “more of a medical-travel consolidator and medical-concierge provider”, than an agent. Lapid notes that in many cases, the patient already has an idea which doctor or hospital they would like to seek treatment from.

“The patient corresponds with the doctor first, and then when the client asks for the doctor to arrange or recommend accommodations and airport transfers, the doctor refers them to us,” she says. Beautiphil then enables medical travel by bringing together the different ancillary services provided by third-party companies such as air travel and hotel accommodation under one roof.

In fact, although many patients contact them in this way, the company is able to help in all matters. “When they don’t (have a particular doctor in mind), we give them options – a range of doctors, clinics and hospitals. We send the doctor’s resume, and as much as possible we let the patient communicate directly with the doctor even before leaving their country. If the patient is not comfortable with the doctor from the outset or if the doctor is not comfortable with the patient, we then look for an alternative.”

Beautiphil’s medical partners include the Beverly Hills Medical Group, the Eye Republic Ophthalmology Center, the Rosero Medical Clinic and the Asian Hospital.

With the country just newly aware to the potential of medical travel, overseas patients who beat a path to its doors are people who have some working knowledge of the Philippines.

In fact, majority of Beautiphil patients are balikbayans (returning overseas Filipinos) – including those who no longer have close relatives in the country – as well as Australians. They come for dental procedures like caps and crowns, and cosmetic surgeries like rhinoplasty, eyelid surgery and breast implants.

“To date, none of our patients have had any serious ailment that needs medical treatment. All their procedures have been elective and the doctors we have worked with are conservative and very careful,” Lapid says. “Part of our package of services is to accompany the patient to post-op consultations, the first of which is usually two or three days after surgery or discharge. We make sure that the patient does not leave for home until he has been declared fit to travel by the attending physician.”

Challenges and opportunities

For medical-travel agents like OMS which sends patients abroad, the challenges come on two fronts.

“Most (doctors in North America) scare their patients with stories of poor quality service in developing countries and of the consequence of long-distance flights after a major procedure. At the other end, hospitals do not offer a reasonable referral fee. Physicians’ fee is excluded from the final bill. Only 5 percent is offered as the agent’s fee. Most hospitals conjure many methods to deprive agents of their referral fee, while lending zero financial support for administration and advertising,” Th-Hollingshead says.

On the other hand, the challenges for medical-travel agents in emerging markets like the Philippines involve the lack of basic fundamentals to stay competitive in a robust industry.

“Although we have good doctors and medical facilities at par or even better than other countries, the infrastructure is not yet in place. Our premier hospitals are not in the locations of our tourist destinations. There are no medical facilities in Boracay. There are no rest and recreation facilities near St Luke’s Hospital. There is still lack of integration between medical facilities (as well as health and wellness facilities) and rest and recreation facilities such as beaches and resorts. The different stakeholders in the Philippine medical-travel industry need to unite and get their acts together,” Lapid observes.

But as the new year begins, both Th-Hollingshead and Lapid are optimistic that medical travel will continue to expand as rising medical costs in advanced countries lead its citizens to look for high-quality healthcare at affordable costs in other places.

“More patients from the UK, US and Canada will seek offshore treatment in the absence of reasonable insurance and quick access to procedures unavailable in their own country,” Th-Hollingshead says.

Lapid agrees: “I think that recognition by medical insurance companies and HMOs abroad will be a big factor in the growth of the medical-travel industry.”

FURTHER CONTENT PUBLISHED BY THIS AUTHOR

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