United States

Through most of the twentieth century, venerated US medical institutions dominated the world in research, academics, training, complex diagnosis and technology-driven treatment. As with other sectors, the US now shares the healthcare landscape with top medical and academic institutions around the globe.

A private US hospital typically offers technologies and surgical expertise considered too expensive or too specialized for patients in many other countries. The US also offers a confidence factor: top US medical schools such as Stanford, Harvard, Cleveland Clinic and Mt. Sinai remain the envy of the world, with unmatched high standards and rigor. Similarly, US physicians are subject to the most arduous system of ethical and legal accountability in the world.

Top Doctors and Diagnoses Attract International Patients

Geography may prove a secondary consideration when the vast experience of a specialty hospital or a team of sub-specialists is required.

In its 2013-2014 rankings of the best hospitals in the United States, US News and World Reports awarded its top spot for cancer care to the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in America’s heartland city of Houston, Texas. A close second was Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

The top rankings in neurology and neurosurgery went to the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, with New York Presbyterian. For orthopedics, the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City earned the top spot, with the Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic close behind.

Cleveland Clinic in Ohio ranked first in heart surgery, second in gastroenterology, and second in rheumatology. International patients are finding first contacts with specialists at these and other US institutions easier with the advent of econsults (see sidebar), which give patients—through their overseas doctors—access to the best medical advice the US has to offer, without leaving home.

The United States and Medical Travel

Each year, some 800,000 international patients visit the United States seeking excellence in specialty care—especially in complex or "last-resort" cases. US facilities and physicians are rarely able to beat the price at a JCI-accredited hospital in India, Turkey or Thailand; however, American specialists often are called upon to treat cases considered difficult-to-hopeless elsewhere.

While the US healthcare system remains largely wedded to general hospital model, pillars of specialty treatment can be found in vibrant regions, where academics, research and clinical care come together to form a powerful whole. For example, Houston’s Texas Medical Center (TMC) is comprised of 54 hospitals and specialty clinics, including luminaries such as MD Anderson (oncology); Methodist (orthopedics, transplants); Texas Children’s Hospital and its recently opened Women’s Pavilion.

Similarly, healthcare clusters in South Florida tend to attract the Latin American and Caribbean patient, while Boston and New York bring in affluent patients from all over, including Africa, the Middle East, Western Europe and—increasingly—Russia and China.

Most leading US international hospitals have been serving cross-border patients for decades, with established international patient services that include airport pick-up and drop-off, hotel shuttle, translators, travel planning and more. An Intercontinental Hotel is connected to Cleveland Clinic, and the Marriott Texas Medical Center welcomes visitors from all walks, with special amenities for the TMC patient.

Domestic Medical Travel on the Rise

Over the past two decades, the trend of consumer-driven healthcare has given rise to patients traveling beyond their backyards for specialty care not available close to home. The Internet is finally having its impact on healthcare, and cost-conscious patients are discovering they can take advantage of wide price disparities without sacrificing quality, if they are willing to do the research and pack a suitcase.

Employers and insurers are responding as well; in 2010 Lowes Corporation entered into an arrangement with the renowned Cleveland Clinic in Ohio to give its 40,000 employees and their covered dependents the option to travel to that facility for heart care. PepsiCo entered into a similar arrangement with John Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore for its nearly 250,000 US employees and dependents. The travel surgery benefit includes cardiac and complex joint replacement surgeries, paid travel and accommodations and often a cash incentive for patients willing to pack a suitcase.

Last updated on 20 January 2014