Mysteries surround inbound medical tourism

Call it reverse medical tourism. The U.S. wants to help grow the number of foreigners who come to America for medical care. But it doesn't have a handle on the current size of the market. To that end, the U.S. Department of Commerce recently awarded $500,000 as part of a three-year agreement with the University HealthSystem Consortium based in Oak Brook, Ill., according to UHC. Part of UHC's job will be to start counting.

The award is part of the National Export Initiative, announced in June, which aims to double medical care "exports" by 2015.

The project will involve better quantifying and developing of ways to increase the number of inbound medical tourists who come to the U.S. for care. Cost, apparently isn't an issue for these well-heeled visitors.

Currently, estimates of the number of inbound patients are not terribly precise. A study that will be published later this year in Health Policy estimates that in 2007, between 43,000 and 103,000 foreigners came to the U.S. for medical care, and between 50,000 and 121,000 U.S. residents sought medical care abroad, the website Treatment Abroad reports.

UHC's Comparative Data & Informatics department, headed by senior vice president Steve Meurer, will lead the project with Rush University Medical Center." Our goal is first to define and measure medical exports coming to the U.S. and quantify their impact on our healthcare economy," Dr. Meurer said in a statement. "Subsequently we will develop strategies to stimulate growth in the number of international patients choosing U.S. healthcare providers."

He plans to establish a forum for international patient programs; create a standardized set of data elements to be reported on international patients; host a series of meetings focused on strategies to increase the global competitiveness of U.S. healthcare providers; and develop strategic relationships with foreign ministries of health and private payers.

To learn more:
- read the University HealthSystem Consortium press release
- read the Treatment Abroad article

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