Chapter 3 Page 5 | The Media Imprimatur

The media in the United States did not really discover medical tourism until 2004-05, and it was found in the Far East rather than in central and South America. It was Bumrungrad Hospital in Thailand and the Apollo Hospital Group in India and Penang Adventist Hospital in Malaysia that made 60 Minutes and the front pages of the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, not the plucky surgeons and dentists of Costa Rica, Mexico, and Brazil — even though far more U.S. citizens were heading South for inexpensive medical and dental care and surgery than were heading to the Far East. There are a few good reasons for that, which I offer not as an apology for the media but as explanation:

1. The story wasn’t about cosmetic surgery, which, despite its popularity and the professionalism of its practitioners, doesn’t get the same treatment in the news as does “real” medicine. Cosmetic surgery news is fluffier, more frivolous, than open-heart surgery news. The international hospitals of the Far East, wisely, didn’t play up cosmetic surgery — though they do a lot of it. They played up cardiothoracic surgery, and their state-of-the-art technology and facilities, and thus were taken more seriously. For the first time, much was made of the fact that there is an estimated 42 million people in the United States who lack adequate medical insurance who could go out of the country to get treatment they could not otherwise afford.

2. The story was delivered in part as a business story with big dollar signs, the kind that gets attention from the media. India put a $2 billion sticker on medical tourism. As previously noted, Bumrungrad sees more than 350,000 patients a year.

3. The story was generated by big multipurpose hospitals, and supported by the tourism and economic development officials of their respective countries. This is the way countries in the Far East go after markets, and there is nothing in Central or South America to compare as yet.

As we move through the first decade of the 21st century, medical tourism is still both newly discovered and in transition. The tip of the iceberg remains elective medical care, mostly cosmetic surgery and dentistry; beneath the surface is the larger consumer health-care market of North America and Europe.

And the media is paying attention. In February 2006 a West Virginia state legislator introduced the first bill in the country providing for the outsourcing of medical care to foreign countries. In Chicago, Blue Cross/Blue Shield investigated and then approved payment for an insured child’s heart surgery in India. And when President Bush visited India for the first time in March 2006, the two countries released a statement pledging American support for Indian efforts to support medical tourism, saying there is “enormous potential for collaboration” in health tourism.

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