More evidence the healthcare world is flat

I'm writing this on my flight back to Seattle from the Consumer Health World Conference in Washington, D.C.  The conference is actually just getting underway.  My stay was abbreviated due to the fact that I have a mid-week speaking engagement in California followed by a return trip to D.C. at week's end to speak at the World Healthcare Innovation and IT Congress

My brief stay at Consumer Health World was to facilitate a faculty leadership summit.  I've done this the past three years and always find it interesting.  This year we debated the fate of employer paid health insurance, the rise of medical tourism, and the future of primary care.  While all of the topics generated lively debate, I was perhaps most impressed by the rapid expansion of the overseas health industry and medical tourism.

Consumer Health World 030 This growth was evident on the exhibit floor where at least half a dozen booths were sponsored by healthcare organizations operating outside the US.  Some of the countries represented included Guatemala, Panama, Singapore, Thailand, and India.  There were also exhibits by companies that specialize in recruiting patients for overseas medical care and organizing their travel.

I had time to attend a presentation from the Bangkok Hospital Group, a for-profit organization comprising 19 hospitals in Thailand.  The group's International Hospital cared for more than 720,000 expatriates last year.  That was a 49 percent increase over the previous year.  The hospital's staff is comprised of more than 600 physicians representing every specialty.  30 percent of the physicians received their training in the US, UK or Europe. 

Consumer Health World 022 Bangkok Medical Group aggressively recruits overseas patients for a wide variety of treatments including cancer therapy, orthopedic surgery, cardio-thoracic surgery, plastic and reconstructive surgery, and a few treatments not available in the US such as stem cell therapy for end stage heart failure.  Prices for these treatments and procedures are totally transparent.  They range from just 10 to 30 percent of the cost for equivalent care in the United States.  The facilities are JCAHO accredited. 

These hospitals in Thailand are no ordinary facilities even by US standards.  Most American hospital administrators would be green with envy. The all-private-room facilities look more like 5-star hotels than hospitals and sport the very latest top-of-the-line imaging devices, therapeutic modalities, and information technologies.  And unlike American Hospitals, when you check in for service here you know exactly how much you'll pay upon discharge.

Consumer Health World 027 In many ways this would be the story of American automobile manufacturing all over again were it not for the fact that not all patients can or will go overseas for treatment.  But as the world grows flatter, in much the same way that the Japanese and Koreans have transformed the auto industry, global competition is making American healthcare a target for some revolutionary changes.  And contemporary IT will play a significant role in all of this by making health information, healthcare quality, and pricing totally transparent and by facilitating communication and collaboration between care teams and patients across the seven seas.

Bill Crounse, MD   Senior Director, Worldwide Health     Microsoft Corporation