Understand how we got here — and how to move forward.


July 20, 2020

Yes, medical tourists are still seeking care. Here's how to attract (and retain) them.

Daily Briefing

    Before Covid-19, medical tourism—which Advisory Board defines as the practice of patients traveling outside the market where they reside to receive care—was a significant source of revenue for some health systems. In fact, while estimates vary, the global medical tourism industry was worth an appropriate $70 billion, while the U.S. medical tourism industry was worth roughly $6.7 billion. 

    How Covid-19 is changing the future of the health care industry

    However, the Covid-19 pandemic has severely affected medical tourism, creating significant travel restrictions and spurring marked changes in how consumers feel about in-person health care services. To help navigate this changing market, we've outlined strategies below to engage and retain medical tourists—including international travelers, domestic airline travelers, and domestic ground travelers—during this time.

    Building loyalty with international travelers

    International medical tourists are individuals traveling from another country to the United States for medical care. Currently, most international travel is at a standstill. Some international patients may reschedule as travel restrictions loosen, but others will seek care closer to home.

    To engage with these consumers, health system leaders can build patient loyalty now, so these patients reschedule procedures or consider your system for future care needs. For instance, since medical tourists often choose institutions based on brand or clinician prestige, one retention strategy is offering virtual second opinion services with your sought-after providers.

    Assessing urgency for domestic airline travelers   

    Domestic airline travelers are patients in the U.S. who are far enough from your institution that they need to fly in. As with most medical tourists within the United States, these consumers tend to travel for high-acuity care, such as cardiovascular surgery. They leave their markets for two primary reasons: access to experts, and the perception that they'll receive higher-quality care at lower cost.

    Within this the category of domestic airline travelers, specific patients' situations will vary depending on their risk factors and clinical urgency. Health systems can determine the best path forward by having individual conversations with these patients. Conversations can be conducted virtually with a trusted clinician. Patients can then be split into two categories:

    1. Patients able to wait: Health systems can retain and engage these patients with virtual offerings, similarly to how they engage international travelers.

    2. Patients with urgent procedures: While you may lose some medical travelers in this group, many may still fly in for care even now. Ensuring their safety will be paramount. The following section on domestic ground travelers will discuss safety and communication recommendations.

    Highlighting safety for domestic ground travelers—and potentially stemming outmigration

    Domestic ground travelers are patients who travel by car, train, or other ground transport to your institution. Some pre-Covid domestic airline travelers may convert to ground travel due to travel concerns. These patients will likely return as states lift stay-at-home orders and resume scheduled procedures.

    To encourage resumption of care, health systems should focus on communicating safety measures. For example:

    1. Highlight comprehensive safety protocols: Before reaching out to patients, providers must put the proper precautions in place to regain patient trust. For example, health systems can separate popular medical tourist procedures from Covid-19-related services by location, hours, or staff.

    2. Reassure appropriate patients that it is safe to return: Once you've put in place safety precautions, ensure that your community understands the measures you implemented. Don't hold back on this front—according to a recent ReviveHealth survey, 57% of respondents want to hear more from their local providers when it comes to Covid-19. It is particularly important to focus on patients whose care is urgent. These patients may be more likely to outmigrate for big-ticket items such as major surgeries or cancer care, so capturing their business is time-sensitive.

    (For in-depth safety and patient communication ideas, please refer to our recent blog post on the subject.)

    In addition, during this time, smaller hospitals and health systems that typically lose volumes to larger institutions face a unique opportunity: Engage patients who, given travel and safety concerns, may be more willing to seek local care. To stem outmigration, leaders must do two things:

    1. Understand where (and why) outmigration occurs and target specific populations: Identify which of your services lose volumes to outmigration, and deploy marketing strategies for each. Focus your message on the quality of care and Covid-19 safety measures your hospital has implemented.

    2. Retain newly captured business: Ensure all patients have an exceptional experience, so that they are more likely to return to you in the future. Make re-engagement easy with convenient communication options, such as texting providers or patient portals.

    The steps described here can help your organization mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on medical tourism volumes. For some, these uncertain times also present an opportunity to turn around entrenched outmigration care patterns.

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