Studying what lies beneath the surface of market forces can be fascinating.
BusinessWeek has a slideshow depicting major centers for medical tourism, as well as the cost savings of various procedures in relation to the US. This got me thinking about several dimensions of this concept, particularly since healthcare is 15% of the US economy, yet is also the sector of the US economy, outside of government, where wastage and ineffeciencies are the greatest.
Many procedures that cost $100,000 or more in the US can be done with equal competence for $10,000 in Thailand or India. Normally, if something of comparable quality is available for just a tenth of the cost, demand migrates to the cheaper alternative in a huge torrent. Even after accounting for travel costs, the gulf is immense. Yet it appears that only a small percentage of US patients for cardiovascular surgery, joint replacements, etc. are going overseas for their operations. Medical tourism will still only earn a miniscule $4 Billion in 2008 for India, Thailand, and Singapore combined, of which only one-third is from American patients. Thus, only a fraction of a percent of the US, European, and Japanese healthcare sectors have been dented.
This, of course, can be due to two reasons :
a) Fears about quality/safety, either real or perceived.
b) Net out-of-pocket cost to the patient still being lower in the US, due to insurance.
Regarding quality, many of these surgeons are certified by US boards or even educated in US colleges, and accidents do not appear to happen at any greater rate than in the US. At the same time, it is not possible to pursue malpractice suits against facilities in India or Thailand, which, while certainly an element of risk, itself is part of the reason for their lower price relative to the US. It is inevitable that some mishap befalls an American patient in Asia, and the media latches onto the story for a week or more, reversing the market demand for medical tourism for years, even if the incidence of such tragedies may be no more than in US hospitals. In fact, I am surprised it has not happened already.
In terms of cost, that brings us to the elephant in the room, which is the revelation that it is not India or Thailand that are too cheap, but rather that US healthcare is too expensive to begin with. I am no expert in this field, but it seems obvious that a lack of market forces in the value chain, a lack of regulation of lawsuits, the horrendous dietary habits of most Americans, and the tendency of consumers to not care about how much the insurance company pays are all contributory factors to what is arguably the greatest tragedy in US economic history. Socializing the healthcare system will worsen it, for reasons too vast to delve into here. It is true that many Canadians come to the US for urgent procedures that would require a 3-month wait in Canada.
However, millions of Americans don't have health insurance at all, and while for some this is by choice, for some it is not. For them, traveling abroad for a $10,000 heart procedure may be the only affordable option. Even if the most experienced and well-frequented facilities are in India and Thailand, nearby options also exist in Jamaica and Costa Rica. Over 20 other countries across Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America are also vying for a slice of the pie.
As unintended consequences ripple through, herein lies the path to forcing some degree of reform of the US healthcare system. As more Americans either choose or are forced to seek low-cost procedures abroad, even if it is only a small percentage American patients, this will compel insurance companies to include medical tourism options to patients. The insurance company can offer their own version of malpractice insurance to the patient, cover all travel expenses for the patient and spouse, and even throw in a vacation package and cash incentive. Even after all this, if the cost of the $10,000 procedure in India or Thailand has now risen to $30,000, it still outcompetes the $100,000 US alternative handily. Some insurance companies are already starting this with enthusiasm, and before long, all insurance companies will effectively have to compete on this level.
As the number of Americans combining surgeries with a tropical vacation becomes a small but significant percentage of the total patient pool, the US healthcare system will have no choice but to undertake the difficult reforms to bring costs down at a systemic level, thus benefiting even those Americans who refuse to go overseas, and even procedures that are not candidates for offshoring. If software development can be outsourced to India where it is one fourth the cost, surgeries cannot expect to be perpetually immune to competition that is a tenth or twentieth of the cost. Through some combination of tort reform, free-market principles, and preventative focus, US costs will gradually be brought down closer to a market rate. Perhaps the US can comfortably sustain prices that are 3 times that of Thailand, but not 10 times. This will be the next industry in the US that is forced to adapt.
To review, the expected sequence of events is :
1) Americans with no insurance are forced to make a life or death decision to get their surguries abroad, where the service meets or exceeds their expectations.
2) More insurance companies offer medical tourism with liability guarantees and cash/vacation incentives to American patients. Only a small fraction of patients are adventurous enough to do this, but all insurance companies are compelled to offer these options.
3) Major centers for medical tourism, after a track record of about a decade, develop solid brands that can attract American patients.
4) When we finally get to the point that 10% of Americans are traveling abroad for a wide array of procedures, the US will be forced to begin to take measures to reduce costs throughout the healthcare system. Losing 10% of the market is all that it will take to force some positive changes. This could begin to happen by 2020.
Such a sequence of events, of course, will boost the US economy greatly. Of the $2 Trillion mentioned above, as much as half of that, a whopping $1 Trillion or 7% of the US economy, is estimated to be wastage incurred due to a shortage of market forces in healthcare. Imagine if that $1 Trillion could be redeployed elsewhere. A person who saves $90,000 on a heart procedure can choose to use that money on emerging innovations in biotechnology that may be available in the 2020s, such as treatments to slow down or halt some aspects of aging.
This is not going to be a trend that moves as quickly as some of the others discussed here on The Futurist. But the economics involved are massive enough that it has certainly caught my eye. Let's see what happens, both before and after the predicted media frenzy over a foreign medical mishap.
Update (4/3/08) : Businessweek has an article on how technological advances in medical instrumentation are enabling some surgical procedures to be done with far tinier incisions. Patients who previously would have to stay in the hospital for a week to recover now can leave in under a day.
The article also mentions how hospitals are opposed to these technological advancements, as they reduce the number of days of revenue a hospital can collect while a patient recovers after surgury. This anti-productive, entitlement mentality will hasten the downfall of the US healthcare cartel, as shorter recovery times due to smaller incisions will make a trip to a tech-friendly facility in Thailand or India even more compelling. When the cost is a tenth and the recovery time is a fifth of what it would be in the US, how long before market forces dominate?