Accreditation agency keeps an eye on medical tourism

Safe travel practices protect patients, boost industry

Call it health care travel or medical tourism, international travel by people seeking medical procedures and therapies is big business, with estimates commonly in the neighborhood of $20 billion per year.

Such a booming enterprise encourages opportunity — and invites confusion and abuse, says the founder of a service that works to accredit overseas medical providers and provide potential travelers with accurate information.

Los Angeles-based nonprofit HealthCare Tourism International, launched in early 2006, aims to establish, improve, and maintain the reputation and safety of the health care tourism industry, according to co-CEO Neilish Patel.

"We want to help ensure safe tourism practices, and part of what that entails is a nonclinical accreditation system, with which we hope to improve the industry," says Patel. "It is complementary to what the Joint Commission International [JCI, the international accreditation arm of The Joint Commission] is doing with clinical accreditation."

When HealthCare Tourism International was creating its nonclinical accreditation system, Patel and co-CEO Elliot Mendelsohn dovetailed their agency's protocols with those of JCI.

"We address the components of health care travel that aren't addressed by JCI, which are often the nonclinical aspects of travel," Patel adds. Some of those aspects border on the clinical, however.

A patient who travels to India for surgery, for example, will have a recovery period after discharge from the hospital but before he or she can safely make the return trip home. HealthCare Tourism International accredits hotels that are equipped and staffed to house recovering patients — for example, staff members are trained in CPR and there is ready access to physicians if emergencies arise.

JCI has been accrediting hospitals worldwide since 1999. Accreditation standards for overseas providers are based on international consensus standards and set uniform, achievable expectations for structures, processes, and outcomes for hospitals. The accreditation process is designed to accommodate specific legal, religious, and cultural factors within a country.

Accreditation boosts credibility

HealthCare Tourism International also accredits agencies that book travel for patients.

"I think the typical service provider that applies for accreditation is the dot com that sets up to become a medical travel agent," Patel says. "They set up web sites and attract patients, and become travel agents — they put together the tickets, the housing, the transfers.

"Some of these travel agencies are springing up overnight, and they're trying to gain credibility and want to gain accreditation. We have a backlog of those companies wanting to apply for accreditation."

Accreditation protocols for providers and institutions offering medical care for international travelers also address ethical concerns that can arise with a growing, largely unregulated activity.

"With a booming industry, you find corruption, and our protocols aim to reduce that, to reduce things like kickbacks from physicians to medical travel agents who might be promoting the physicians without disclosing the relationship," says Patel. "We seek to minimize conflicts of interest, and we're finding that the health care tourism industry is being heavily regulated by other countries' ministries of tourism, not their ministries of health. That shows that, at least for now, it's more about the tourism than about the health care in some cases."

[For more information contact:

HealthCare Tourism International Inc., 11420 Santa Monica Boulebard #251444, Los Angeles, CA 90025. Phone: (310) 928-3611. Web site: www.healthcaretrip.org.

Neilish Patel, co-CEO, HealthCare Tourism International Inc. Phone: (650) 468-3631. E-mail: neil.patel@healthcaretrip.org.]