Telehealth may aid in medical tourism, but barriers abound

Medical tourism, with the assistance of telemedicine in the U.S., holds a great many opportunities, as well as myriad challenges, according to Yan Alicia Hong, Ph.D., of the School of Public Health at Texas A&M University.

Hong, in a view point published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, points out that the number of patients traveling to other countries to receive medical care has grown in recent years, with patients living in "middle- and low-income countries" traveling more to higher-income countries, such as the U.S.

Such growth is causing hospitals in the states to invest more in services to cater to these patients, including technology-based platforms, she says.

Hong also notes last fall's opening of an online "e-hospital," the Chinese American Physicians E-Hospital. Its physicians speak both Chinese and English and provide teleconsulting and other virtual services. She says platforms like this can lessen hassles for patients and connect them with the right provider without language and culture impeding the effort.

But barriers to care of medical tourists cannot be ignored, Hong says. They include a lack of understanding of the quality of healthcare across borders and little communication on the risks of such care (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has guidance for Americans, but other countries do not offer similar resources), as well as legal concerns that can arise regarding lawsuits and mismanaged care.

"Rapid growth of medical tourism mirrors accelerative globalization," Hong writes. "But how to ensure the patient safety, quality of care, ethical issues and legal concerns remain inadequately addressed. ... As we enter a new frontier of telemedicine for the old business of medical tourism, we need more research and dialogue on the issues and impact associated with the evolving models of medical consumerism."

However, even on a national level, there are still challenges to telemedicine use that must be addressed before the services are truly widespread. Those challenges include reimbursement, differing state policies and geographical barriers.

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- here's the viewpoint