Category Archives: Medical Tourism

An Old Story Resurfaces

My loyal readers may recall that in two separate occasions, I discussed a company in North Carolina called HSM that chose to send its employees to India and Costa Rica for medical care under their self-insured health care plan.

The two previous articles, US Companies Look to ‘Medical Tourism’ To Cut Costs and Self-Insured Employers and Medical Travel: One Company’s Experience came out of an interview in Business that was conducted by the author and the Director of Benefits for HSM, Tim Isenhower.

This morning, my good friend Laura Carabello of US Domestic Medical published another interview with Tim, adding two more locations to their medical travel portfolio, Cancun and the Cayman Islands.

The interview is reproduced verbatim below, and pay attention to one point Tim makes about his company’s workers’ comp costs, a point I mentioned previously and cite as a basis for considering implementing medical travel into workers’ comp.

Here is the interview:

SPOTLIGHT: Tim Isenhower, Director of Benefits, HSM
Spotlight U.S. Domestic by Editor – March 20, 2018

About Tim Isenhower

Tim Isenhower, Director of Benefits – has worked with HSM and their self-insured health insurance for the past 25 years. Managing a self-insured health plan through the 90’s to today has provided him the opportunity to think out of the box for reduced healthcare cost programs including direct contracting, on site clinics, chronic disease management, and medical tourism. With IndUShealth, Tim and HSM were pioneers in self-insured companies offering medical tourism, as was presented on ABC News and Nightline.

About HSM

HSM is a privately-owned holding company based in Hickory, North Carolina, that specializes through its subsidiaries, in the manufacture of components for the furniture, bedding, transportation, packaging and healthcare industries, and the design and construction of automated production machinery for the bedding, apparel, aerospace and other industries.

Medical Travel Today (MTT): As a pioneer in the medical travel phenomenon, your story and your company’s role is so intriguing.

Tim Isenhower (TI): We are a manufacturing company and have had facilities coast to coast, as well as technologies in small towns and big cities. We were negotiating discount rates with hospitals across the country, where prices varied based on location.

I went to a human resource seminar in Raleigh in 2007 and Rajesh Rao’s company, Indus Health, was presenting medical travel to India as an option for employers. I went to India with Raj and his team, and got a physical exam which took less than six hours. In the U.S., this type of physical would have taken a month, from schedule to results.

So, we began offering medical travel to India for our employees during our annual enrollment process. We told them that if they chose to have a medical procedure done in India we would pay 100 percent, including travel with a companion.

We got no takers in the beginning. But at one of our final meetings, a fork lift driver from one our plants volunteered to have a knee replacement done in India – he simply couldn’t afford to have it done in the U.S.

He had never even been inside an airport, so I went with him and his travel companion. I was a little nervous because he had no experience traveling. But we got to India, and he actually did very well. He was impressed by the level of treatment he received.

When he returned home, he wrote a testimonial for our company newsletter. After that, more of our employees started traveling to India.

Soon word-of-mouth inspired more of them to get their surgeries in India because they saw what a positive experience it was.

MTT: So why did you shift your destination away from India?

TI: The cultural differences and distance resulted in many of our employees becoming homesick.

So, we started looking closer to home for medical care options. We have a large Hispanic population and Costa Rica had a history of high quality healthcare. We chose that area as the new medical travel destination.

Mostly, we send people for gastric procedures, joint replacements, back surgeries, hernia surgeries – a wide gamut of procedures.

Positive word-of-mouth has kept up the level of interest, and we also visit every location each year to promote the medical travel offering so more employees can understand its benefits.

MTT: And now you have expanded to Cancun. Do you find that there are other opportunities?

TI: We have. We had a patient go to Cancun just a couple of months ago. She did very well and that was a little different concept because it was an American doctor who flew down to Cancun to do her hip replacement. She was very happy with the services, pricing and results. We also send people to the Cayman Islands for various surgeries.

MTT: What has this experience meant to you, as an employer, beyond the cost savings?

TI: It’s really benefitted employee morale, to have a chance to travel to a place like Costa Rica, Cancun or the Cayman Islands. They come back and tell everyone about what a positive experience it was.

We’ve also been able to use our medical travel option as a recruitment tool.

What’s more, we saw our worker’s comp costs decline. [Emphasis mine]

I get thank-you notes from our medical travelers all the time, and we publicize these positive experiences within the company.

There’s no charge to the employee, and we give them a bonus when they return of 20 percent of what they saved the company.

MTT: Wow! That’s very generous.

TI: Up to $10,000. We are just trying to be a good employer, and this is just one way of doing that.

MTT: Do you know how many of your employees travel for surgery every year?

TI: I have lost count. We have roughly 2,500 employees now, and we’ve probably sent about 500 of them during the period of time that we have been doing this.

MTT: Did you ever have any unexpected outcomes?

TI: We’ve had people who had issues with back surgery, and they weren’t allowed to come home until the issue was resolved. But it was resolved.

They got better, came home and are doing very well.

That doesn’t always happen in a U.S. hospital. Here if a patient has issues down the road, they are on their own.

MTT: No legal issues?

TI: Fortunately, no. And the program is growing.

We’ve had everybody from executives to line workers utilize the program. Not everyone qualifies. A few have been eliminated because they have comorbidities that makes traveling for surgery unsafe, so these few were turned away.

MTT: And if you had to improve the program in any way, what would you suggest?

TI: I don’t know how I’d improve it.

Everybody that comes back is ecstatic about the program. The folks at Indus Health make it work. I know other administrators who couldn’t make it work. But Indus Health’s nurse case managers and screening process make it a no-brainer.

Rajesh Rao: We work very hard to make sure our patients are happy with our services. We don’t promise what we can’t deliver.

We work hard with our destinations to make sure we can provide assistance and high quality outcomes because that is what sells the program.

Jim Polsfut: I would like to add that it is a pleasure to work with Indus Health for all the reasons that Tim mentions. Their expertise and thoroughness have worked out very well with us.
We focus on three main objectives.

First, the quality outcomes.

Second, the satisfaction that we get from helping patients save money. In the U.S., it is so expensive to receive medical care even when you have a health plan. In that regard, the patient benefits in a significant way.

Finally, the cost benefit to the employer. For self-insured employers, this is important because of the hyperinflation of medical costs in the U.S. It’s difficult for employers to avoid the impact of healthcare expenses.

All of these factors motivate us, and give us a lot of satisfaction to provide a quality medical travel option.

Here is the link to the original:


Medical Travel for Americans is Alive and Well

Many of you have probably thought that going abroad for medical care after passage of ACA was a thing of the past, or that the idea that workers injured on the job would go abroad was a “stupid, ridiculous idea and a non-starter”, have forgotten that medical care in the US is the most expensive in the world.

But the simple, undeniable fact is that we spend too much on medical care and get very poor results and outcomes, while other countries spend far less and get better outcomes.

Why are we so stubborn? And why hasn’t the workers’ comp world realized that they are fighting an uphill battle to lower costs every time they come out with some new strategy or cost containment measure that never lives up to its promise industry-wide?

Sure, there are individual cases where these companies save money for a particular client, but overall, the cost of medical care for workers’ comp still rises, even if that rise is slow at times, or appears to have shrunk, only to rise once again the next year, as seen in the NCCI State of the Line reports.

An article yesterday in said that traveling abroad for medical care simply makes more sense — even regular teeth cleaning is four times more expensive in the US than it is in Mexico.

One of the first procedures mentioned in the article involves a Minnesota couple who went out of the country for an in-vitro fertilization (IVF) procedure. On her fourth trip to the Czech Republic, it finally worked, and she got pregnant. The procedure in the US would have cost them between $12,000 and $15,000.

While IVF is not something that workers’ comp would cover, the fact remains that procedures cost far too much in the US, and in the case of IVF, only have a 29% success rate, according to a CNBC report cited in the article.

An estimated 1.7 million Americans traveled abroad for care in 2017, according the Josef Woodman, CEO of Patients Beyond Borders, and author of the same titled book. In my seven years of studying medical travel, Josef Woodman’s name has figured prominently in many articles and forums of discussion on the subject.

The article goes on to say that that is 10 times more than the 2008 estimate from Time magazine.

Some of the top destinations for medical care are: India, Israel (always go to a Jewish doctor first), Malaysia, Thailand, Taiwan, South Korea (unless that little twerp up north gets an itchy trigger finger), and Turkey.

However, there are other, more accessible destinations closer to home like Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, etc.

Typical operations are orthopedic or spine surgery (are you listening work comp world?), reproductive operations, cardiovascular and eye surgery.

For example, a coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) in the US costs an estimated $92,000 (you could buy a couple of nice cars for that amount), whereas in India, the same operation would cost $9,800.

A total knee replacement (are you still listening ,workers’ compsters?) cost around $31,000 in the good ole US of A, but in Thailand, costs around $13,000. Tell me how you can save that much on a knee replacement using any of your so-called cost saving schemes?

These same operations in Costa Rica would cost 45 to 65% less than in the US, and would not require such long flights from most parts of the US. What are you waiting for? Save some money, I guarantee your insureds will love you for it.

Malaysia would be 60 to 80% less, but why go there when you can go to Costa Rica?

According to Woodman, medical tourism (travel) is a Band-Aid for the country’s dysfunctional health care system.

Woodman told Salon, “I don’t think you can penetrate this with philanthropy. It’s gonna be baby steps all the way. But in the meantime, medical tourism is a really important option.”

Woodman also said he did not like the term “medical tourism” because it is not a vacation. You may have noticed that I use the term “medical travel” instead. It is travel for medical purposes, and if there is tourism component to it, it is incidental to the reason for going in the first place.

Patients who cannot afford dental work, IVF or orthopedic surgery in the US, Woodman said, should consider travelling abroad. If their operation or treatment is expected to cost them $6,000 out of pocket, they will save money — even with the plane ticket.

Oh, by the way, that Minnesota couple spent, get this, only $235 for the IVF, not including flights. With such reasonable cost savings, it would be a no-brainer for workers’ comp to do the same.

But some people are stupid, ridiculous, and non-starters in my book.

Foreign-born, US-trained Physicians in Medical Travel vs US-born, Foreign-trained Physicians Practicing in the US and Foreign-born, Foreign-trained Physicians Practicing in the US

Those of you in the Workers’ Comp space have probably read my earlier posts extolling the benefits of medical travel, and promoting its implementation into workers’ comp.

Yet, in all those posts, hard evidence of the quality of care provided by physicians in these destinations was not presented.

However,  there is evidence that foreign trained, US  born doctors practicing in the US, provide as good as or better care than that provided by graduates of US medical schools, according to a recent study mentioned over the weekend in a post by Peter Rousmaniere, in his blog, Working Immigrants.

From this data, it may be possible to suggest that foreign-born doctors, trained in US schools provide the same good or better care than their American-born classmates, when they return to their home countries and work in medical travel facilities.

Before beginning to write this post, I tried to research some data on this, but was unable to find any recent information. However, it is well known that there are considerable numbers of foreign-born, US trained and Western trained physicians in medical travel facilities, which is one key factor in choosing to go abroad for medical care.

As Peter reported, among the 12.4 million workers in the health care field in 2015, 2.1 million, or 17% were foreign born. Of these, the foreign born accounted for 28% of the 910,000 physicians and surgeons practicing in the US. 24% of that number are in nursing, psychiatric and home health care.

How many of the foreign-born physicians trained in the US return home is not certain, but given the fact that many foreign born, foreign trained physicians have a hard time gaining access to practice in the US, it is not difficult to ascertain that those who do not enter the US end up working in their home country. In order to practice in the US, they must pass tests by a special commission and enter a residency program, even if they have done them before.

How many foreign trained, US born physicians practice in the US? According to Peter, about 25% of practicing physicians graduated from foreign medical schools. About a third of them are Americans. They are more likely, Peter says, to practice in rural and poorer communities, and are overrepresented in primary care. Given the physician shortage that I and others have commented on, there will be a need for more foreign-born doctors, and perhaps, more US trained, foreign-born doctors to work in medical travel facilities.

The Education Commission for Foreign Medical Graduates (ECFMG) gave roughly 10,000 certifications in 2015. 30.9% were issued to US citizens, 18.9% were issued to citizens of India and Pakistan, and 7.9% from Canada.

The states with the highest percentage of practicing physicians who graduated from foreign medical schools are New Jersey (40%), New York (38%), and Florida (35%).

Most of the New Jersey physicians no doubt practice in the Metropolitan New York Area, given the state’s proximity to NYC. And Florida has a large percentage given the demographics of that state.

So, if foreign-born, US trained physicians are ok for treating injured workers here, why can’t their fellow countrymen do the same back home if an injured worker, or his employer choose that as an option to expensive surgery at an American hospital?

Don’t tell me there is a difference, because there isn’t. It is only ignorance and prejudice that prevents foreign-born, US trained physicians from treating injured workers in medical travel facilities. That is another problem our health care and workers’ comp systems need to deal with.

A Personal Appeal

As you may have noticed, I have been re-posting several times articles about my interest In finding opportunities or remote/virtual positions.

To date, I have had no success. As I may have mentioned in my previous post, “Now It’s Personal“, I was diagnosed with End-Stage Renal Disease, and have been undergoing peritoneal dialysis at home.

The treatment is going well, but yesterday I began what will be a long, possibly three year process to get a transplant. As I am doing now, and will be doing in the future, I have been staying home to receive my dialysis supplies every two weeks, and going to the clinic for blood work and follow-up. In addition, I will have tests, and need to go down to Miami, so my schedule will not allow me to work full-time, or even part-time for twenty hours a week at some office.

To that end, I am interested in any work any of you can pass onto me that will utilize my skills and experience. No matter where you are in the world, as long as we can communicate online, I can do something constructive and valuable.

If you need my CV, I will gladly provide it upon request.

I would not do this here if the other postings had been successful, and time is running short.


Words and Phrases: Global Healthcare or Whatever You Want to Call It

This past Saturday, while waiting for power to be restored in my area due to a pesky lizard’s venture where lizards don’t belong, I was able to use my cell phone to read some posts on LinkedIn.

I came across a discussion by three of the top medical travel personnel answering the question, “Is the term “Medical Tourism” obsolete?”

This discussion thread was begun by Stella Tsartsara, and followed by Ilan Geva and Elizabeth Ziemba, including yours truly, who put his two cents into the conversation.

Since Stella has given me her approval to use her comments, and I suspect that Ilan and Elizabeth would not mind, I am going to quote them verbatim here for the reader to digest. There will be some names that I will leave out, because one, I have not contacted them, and two, they were mentioned in passing by the individual who I am quoting.

Stella I. Tsartsara:

“I see Elizabeth Ziemba talking about carrying capacity of HC systems. XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX told me half of the international projects I do have nothing to do with Medical Tourism, XXXXXXXXXXXXXX told me we are dealing with “International Healthcare” anymore, we are passed the term “Medical Tourism ” probably instigated by people traveling to another destination for (cheaper) surgery not covered by their insurance where the “patient” had time to do some sightseeing. But once the demand came to more serious interventions like heart surgery then the only organization needed was a reliable MTF and good research from the patient to guarantee results. Here the “tourism” is at the 4-5th place after doctor, hospital reputation, waiting list time, safety, post- surgery follow up, price and cost reimbursement from insurance.

Now with the Cross Border Healthcare and the Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) Wikileaks revelation on the globalization of healthcare officially by the states, things take a completely new turn and the fact that we are talking about Medical Tourism is raising some eyebrows. Or at least it should be split from Healthcare delivery.”

Stella I. Tsartsara:

“I have no possibility for edit, I rephrase here that XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX told me some time ago that her projects deal with international healthcare mostly which is a healthy sign of evolution in the industry although XXXXXXXXXXX says this word does not exist either, to which of course I agree.

Terms are the beginning of taking the trend seriously by the demand. It’s about shaping policy in the end.”

Ilan Geva:

“Stella, I think that the term Medical Tourism was pushed upon us by an association. The fact is no one, except our circle of Professionals, is using it or cares about it. In the effort to differentiate and stand out, many started to use Medical Travel, Global Healthcare…whatever. Patients don’t really care what you call it, they have a need or a want that requires a solution. Many of them are not looking for the “Tourism “aspect of a medical issue. Have you noticed that even the MTA is not using their name as much as they used to? They are now pushing the GHA brand.

Is that an indicator that medical tourism is dead? Who knows, and frankly, who cares? Globally, there are enough tremors in the healthcare sector, enough to guarantee continued movement of patients from one region to another. Maybe we should start calling it “Medical Voyages”?”

Elizabeth Ziemba:

“Thanks for starting a very interesting conversation, Stella. The term “medical tourism” isn’t dead yet because it is still the top search term in the sector and is heavily used by the media. But the sector itself has outgrown the term. I will be giving a presentation at the IMTJ/World Health Care Congress about this very topic. The sector is changing but it is hard to get away from “medical tourism” when SEO rules. I must admit that the name of my company, Medical Tourism Training, was selected because of its SEO and familiarity to people. Even now, people react to it favorably even though I hate it. Time to look past the label to the substance.”

Stella I. Tsartsara:

“Ilan Geva “medical tourism” is not dead and maybe never dead as there are interventions where tourism plays an important part and here individual consultants have a bigger profit margin. But definitely movement of patients for elective treatment is not and cannot be called this way.

In EU we call it “Cross Border Healthcare” because we established the Institutional parameters for its organization and delivery.

This is what is lacking from an international perspective for the term to have a meaning. By the way trained eyes in institutional development like XXXXXXXXXXX will see immediately that the TiSA is exactly the same (with 2 additions on insurance and compulsory post-surgery monitoring & liability) with the EU Directive 24/11/EC on the Cross Border Healthcare in EU.”


“I have used “Medical Travel” in my posts, but for the purpose of selecting a category to place them in, or to tag them when I write, I use both “Medical Tourism” and “Medical Travel”.”

Stella I. Tsartsara:

“Elizabeth Ziemba & Richard Krasner, MA, MHA I tend to agree more with Ilan Geva on the matter. However as I said there will always be room for the “tourism” side for hundreds of treatments where tourism plays a very significant part like Medical SPA, cosmetic surgery, diagnostics, dental etc, although still I do believe that it’s not a priority. What Ilan said it’s a revelation for the “association”. Who else would give international care such a limited meaning maybe pushed by its operators back then.

But what is coming ahead e.g. Institutional and Regulative development of international healthcare (among public hospitals as well) has absolutely nothing to do with “tourism”. We have to set things straight if we want to be taken seriously by those who will be in our path in the consultation activities for its future development. Those who were (are still) building the TiSA are not going to look or refer to “medical tourism”.”

Stella I. Tsartsara:

“I also have the impression that something is moving in layers that are not yet visible to us, on the management of this new trend. I believe that actors are organizing themselves differently and as there is not yet a market (it’s still a taboo internationally exactly because it involves also public HC, we in EU have solved this but it’s not the case at global level) and the demand is still hybrid, there is no business development and marketing yet of this new consulting set of skills and delivery. But very soon we are going to see a new type of developers in this perspective catering for the state development of international HC. I have proposed years ago through this group the organization of such Groups combining inevitably many specializations and some do exist already run by big Hospital Groups.”

It would seem there is not clear consensus on what term is appropriate for the activity of leaving one’s home country and travelling to a second country for medical care, no matter what the reason for travel may be.

If, as Stella said, it was for heart surgery, doubtless the patient would not be doing much sightseeing post-operation. Yet, on the other hand, if it was for less invasive, and less stressful surgeries and procedures, and if the patient was cleared by the physician and physically able, then the tourism part would apply.

The revelations by Wikileaks of the negotiations on the TisA is no doubt a concern to the entire industry, whether one calls it medical tourism, medical travel, health tourism, health travel, etc. The result is the same. Knowledge of the existence of such an agreement may forestall that agreement being finalized, if not totally scrapped altogether if the right individuals lead a campaign against it in member countries.

Such was the case with Brexit, and such was the case with the 2016 U.S. elections that Wikileaks had a hand in derailing.

The solution, therefore is a stronger effort on the part of all stakeholders to develop strategies, plans, and standards to regulate the industry and to promote it effectively. Relying on an association we know is unreliable is not going to work. Before TiSA is tossed aside like the TPP, or the Paris Climate Treaty by nationalistic dunderheads, the industry must do more.

P.S. The rest of the thread can be seen here:

Russian Anchor Babies: Has Putin Already Begun the Invasion?

As loathe as I am to address anything from the MTA, this item caught my attention just now, as I am an hour north of Miami, and with all the talk about Dreamers and immigration from so-called “s**thole” countries, why is it not on the GOP’s radar that Putin is sending us his women to give birth so that they can claim American citizenship for the children born here?

Not that I am opposed to legal immigration and a path towards legalization for those who came here undocumented, either willingly or because their parents brought them here as children.

What impact this will have on the health care system cannot be determined just yet, but with all the problems we have, this will add to it in greater numbers.

Here is the article.

Let’s hope that Special Counsel Robert Mueller finishes his investigation into Russian interference into the 2016 election. Then he can turn his attention to Russian anchor babies.


Health Care Top US Employer and What It Means for Medical Travel

Back to the real world of health care, et. al.

Last week, The Atlantic magazine reported that the US health care industry has supplanted manufacturing and retail to become the largest source of jobs in the US.

The article, by Derek Thompson, reports that for the first time in history, in the last quarter, there are now more jobs in health care than in the two industries that were the leading job engines of the 20th century.

According to Thompson, in 2000, there were 7 million more workers in manufacturing than in health care, and at the beginning of the Great Recession, there were 2.4 million more workers in retail than in health care.

Thompson says that there are three main drivers of the boom in health care jobs.

  • First, Americans as a group are getting older. By 2025, one-quarter of the workforce will be older than 55 (your humble blogger). This will have doubled in just 30 years. It will have a profound economic and political impact, such as declining productivity and electoral showdowns between a young, diverse workforce and an older, whiter retirement bloc. [True in the last election.] The most obvious effect of an aging population will be that it needs more care, and more workers to care for them.
  • Second, health care is publicly subsidized. The US spends hundreds of billions of dollars on Medicare, Medicaid, and benefits for government employees and veterans. [The recent tax bill passed will make substantial cuts to many of these programs, or outright privatize them.] The US also subsidizes private insurance through tax breaks for employers who sponsor health care.
  • Third, two of the most destabilizing forces for labor in the last generation have been globalization and automation. They have hurt manufacturing and retail by offshoring factories, replacing human arms with robotic limbs, and dooming fusty department stores. Health care is resistant to both. While globalization has revolutionized supply chains and created a global market for manufacturing labor, most health care is local. A Connecticut dentist isn’t selling her services to Portugal, and a physician’s receptionist in Lisbon isn’t directing her patient to Stamford. [I take exception here, as many of you will too. It seems Mr. Thompson has not heard of Medical Travel, both inbound and outbound, and therein lies your problem.]

Finally, the growth in health care employment is more located in administrative jobs than in physician jobs. The number of non-physicians has exploded in the last two decades. Most of these jobs are administrative such as receptionists and office clerks. It is not clear that these workers improve outcomes for patients.

Robert Kocher, a senior fellow at the Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics at USC said the following, “Despite all this additional labor, the most meaningful difference in quality over the past 10 years is the recent reduction in 30-day hospital readmissions from an average of 19 percent to 17.8 percent.”

One other point Thompson notes, is that categories like retail and health care are imperfect approximations, and that some categories are too restrictive, and some are too broad. He points out that there are more jobs in leisure and hospitality than in health care. [Which would explain why some in Medical Travel are more like travel agents, than medical professionals.]

So, while there is good news about the position of health care employment in the US, the downside is, at least as far as Medical Travel is concerned, that globalization may not have as much of an impact on health care as I, and others have thought, and that portends bad news for the industry.