Do We Really Need a Medical Travel Program?

Healthcare providers who are receiving medical travelers and/or international patients (or seeking to) may wonder if it is worth their time, effort and resources to implement an organized medical travel program or international patient department. After all – some may think, “We have received the occasional expat or medical traveler and they seemed satisfied with their care experience. Why create a dedicated program or office? If we translate our website and have some multilingual staff and interpreters available, we should be just fine.” In the following paragraphs we hope to clearly show the potential risks of this mindset and why implementing a medical travel program is critical if your goal is to effectively target and provide medical travelers with a high-quality patient experience.

You may already have a medical travel program or a system that seems to be working for you. If this is the case, as you read this article, we encourage you to take an objective look at the services you are providing to medical travelers to see if there are areas where you can improve. Does your entire medical travel care continuum address the unique needs of the traveling patient populations you are serving? Maybe your current patient follow-up process has breakdowns or weak links which are negatively affecting your patients’ experience and their perception of your organization. Perhaps your organization has not clearly defined who a medical traveler is and consequently has never identified key performance indicators that are relevant to this patient niche.

With this in mind, it is helpful to first define the terms medical travel patient and medical travel program.

Definition of a medical travel patient

The Global Healthcare Accreditation (GHA) Program defines a medical travel patient as: any individual who receives services from the medical travel program and for whom a patient record is created – including acceptance as a patient, evaluation and testing, second opinion and/or treatment, discharge and any indicated follow-up.  Such individuals may include those who travel to the destination medical travel program from another country or from within the same country, expats living in the area, tourists who require medical services, or others who for reasons of language or cultural competency choose the medical travel program for care.

GHA provides a broad definition of a medical travel patient that includes individuals seeking care in a variety of circumstances, but who in most instances, would benefit from the services of a medical travel program. It is perfectly fine if your organization’s definition of a medical travel patient differs from the one above. The important thing is to establish your organization’s definition of a medical traveler. This will help eliminate any ambiguity about which patients should be directed to your medical travel program (once it has been developed) and just as importantly, it will facilitate monitoring and tracking of key performance indicators associated specifically to medical travel patients.

Definition of a medical travel program

As defined by GHA, a medical travel program (also referred to as international patient services or global patient services program) is as a plan or system designed to facilitate medical/dental care and ancillary services for medical travel and/or international patients, with the ultimate goal of providing a safe and high-quality care and patient experience. This is achieved by creating standardized processes and procedures, along the Medical Travel Care Continuum (MTCC), that address the unique needs of traveling patient populations. By doing so, the organization is removing or reducing barriers and friction points that would normally occur if a traveling patient went through the local patient care pathway.

Day to day operations are usually managed through a department or office, within a hospital or ambulatory center, that interfaces with other departments (e.g. admission, lab, customer service), individuals (such as physicians and nurses) and external providers (e.g. airlines, hotels, transportation) as it coordinates care and advocates for the needs of medical travelers and their companions.

Size of the medical travel program

Medical travel programs vary in size and scope. Some may have several dozen or more staff and be a main driver of the organization’s revenue, while others may function just fine with three or four people – especially if they are small programs in early stages of development. The scope of services offered by the medical travel program vary from a single specialty such as cosmetic or dental services to a full scope of preventive, wellness, curative, surgical and non-surgical clinical services.

Typical services provided

  • Assistance with travel, passport or visa coordination
  • Assistance with screening, transfer of medical records and assessment for appropriateness of treatment
  • Communication with referring physician
  • Airport pick-up/drop-off and ground transportation
  • Assistance arranging accommodation
  • Sending price quotes
  • Language interpretation or translation services
  • Personalized patient assistance onsite
  • International Insurance billing
  • Food choices for different religious and cultural preferences
  • Arranging tourism and leisure activities

If your organization’s goal is to ensure a safe and high-quality patient experience for the medical travelers who are currently visiting your hospital or clinic, and perhaps look for ways to attract more medical travelers, you should seriously consider developing a medical travel program that will serve as a hub to centralize and manage all the activities and services described above (an many others). Just as importantly, it will help your organization become proactive to the needs of medical travelers instead of just reactive.

Medical travel patients have unique needs

Patients traveling from different countries and even from different regions within the same country, often have unique needs and expectations that if not properly addressed, can lead to a negative and, in some cases, unsafe patient experience. There are potential language and cultural barriers, travel logistics, infection control and even medication management issues that must be considered by the destination healthcare provider. For example, a medication that is commonly prescribed in one country may not be available or easily accessible in another. A medication that is considered over the counter in the patient’s country of residence could require a prescription in another country or may even be considered a controlled substance. Managing patient medications across the medical travel care continuum is a complex process that must be carefully managed to avoid potential patient safety issues and a negative patient experience.

Additionally, communication and education should be adapted to the needs of medical travel patients. For example:

  • A website or website section should be developed with relevant information in the patient’s language of choice about the organization.
  • Trained staff must be available to quickly respond the patient’s inquiries. In order to respond quickly, a process had to be created so staff can quickly obtain the correct information from medical staff or the appropriate department.
  • Certain information must be obtained from the patient and reviewed by the designated physician to determine the appropriate course of treatment.
  • Very precise information must be conveyed to the patient to ensure he or she is able to safely prepare for the procedure and that expectations are met.
  • Patients require clear information about any risks of traveling for surgery, or other treatments, the nature and purpose of any intended treatment, the options available to them, the benefits and risks of each option.

As you can see, the medical travel care continuum includes many important touchpoints (clinical and non-clinical) that must be identified and then optimized in order to ensure a quality medical travel experience as well as a successful clinical outcome. Have you aligned your services and care processes with the expectations and needs of traveling patients?

What are the benefits of having a medical travel program?

A medical travel program can provide benefits to both patients and the organization.

For the patient and buyers of healthcare services

  • One point of contact to obtain information and coordinate treatment and support services including language interpretation, special needs, financial matters and travel logistics.
  • Increasing transparency about issues such as pricing, patient’s rights, and legal recourse.
  • Access to a patient advocate or advocates that help to guide and orient the patient and companion(s) through each stage of the medical travel care continuum and advocates for their needs.
  • Facilitate an outstanding patient experience for medical travelers and their companions.

For the hospital or clinic

  • Help your organization become proactive to the needs of medical travelers instead of reactive.
  • Standardization of protocols and services, ensuring service consistency.
  • Improved efficiency and productivity managing medical travel patients.
  • Ability to manage higher medical travel patient volume.
  • Removing barriers and friction points to help facilitate a high-quality patient experience across the entire medical travel care continuum.
  • Differentiator to attract higher medical travel patient volume

 While there may be many benefits to implementing a medical travel program in your organization, it is not something you should rush into without careful thought and planning.

Before you get started…

A medical travel program will often provoke the need for additional training, hiring of external expertise, or acquisition of new technology or systems. Healthcare providers may need to foster new collaborations with governmental agencies, insurance companies, multinational employers, hospitality, airlines or other transportation modalities. It is critical to understand your current state of development and needs, in order to develop an adequate plan and budget that allows you to grow in a responsible manner, and create a new, sustainable and unique niche.

Before you rush to implement a medical travel program, get together with your management team and answer the following questions.

  • What are your goals and expectations for the medical travel program?
  • What is your definition of a medical travel patient?
  • Do you know who your ideal target markets are?
  • Can you offer the clinical services and medical expertise that medical travelers and/or international buyers of healthcare are seeking?
  • Can you clearly articulate your unique value proposition for your targeted traveling patient populations?
  • Will instituting a medical travel program align with your organization’s long-term business objectives?
  • Do you have the resources and vision to commit long-term to the development and growth of your medical travel program?
  • What will be the long-term impact of not developing a medical travel program?
  • How will you define success?

Once you have answered these questions, you will be in a much better position to understand your strengths and weaknesses and begin to develop a realistic plan for your medical travel program. Keep in mind that the implementation of a medical travel program can generate several downstream effects on daily operations, including but not limited to:

  • New roles and responsibilities
  • Redesign of existing processes
  • Training of current staff to acquire new skills or acquisition of new talent
  • Optimize and manage integration of specialists, technology, hospitality, governmental stakeholders to create unique competitive niche
  • Optimize patient experience to yield high satisfaction

Developing a medical travel program can sometimes seem like a daunting task, however, don’t let it overwhelm you. Keep in mind that your medical travel program does not have to begin as a mega-project; start with baby steps and add capabilities as patient volume increases. An office with two or three staff members may be all you need if you are a small ambulatory center or if you are a hospital that is just beginning to attract traveling patients. Ultimately, however, the many benefits a medical travel program provides to traveling patients and your organization will make it well worth the time and effort expended.

If you would like to learn more about developing a medical travel program or improving your current program, contact GHA at [email protected].

 

*Medical travel is also commonly known as medical tourism or health tourism.