Jordan eyes lucrative US health-care market

The World Bank has ranked Jordan No. 1 in the region and No. 5 in the world as a medical-tourism destination.

Paul Cheshire 88 248 (photo credit: )
Paul Cheshire 88 248
(photo credit: )
Resource-poor Jordan is hoping to turn Americans' misfortune into its fortune. The largely desert kingdom - already established in the Middle East as a top health-care destination - is stepping up efforts to tap into the multibillion-dollar medical-tourism market with a campaign to lure US citizens weary of soaring health-care costs. "Come here, do your surgery. Afterward, have a vacation, visit Petra, swim in the Dead Sea," Dr. Fawzi al-Hammouri, the head of Jordan's Private Hospitals Association, said, listing the country's most popular tourism destinations. The hospitals are offering package deals, including air travel. "All this, inclusive, is less than 25 percent of what you have to pay in the US," he said. The push, which includes a Web campaign and a visit by a group of US health-care specialists and insurers starting Tuesday, is a key part of the country's strategy to develop new services and industries. Unlike many of its neighbors, Jordan lacks oil wealth and relies on tourism, worker remittances, foreign investments and aid for its revenue. Jordanian officials hope the medical-tourism industry will provide some sorely needed cash. With health costs climbing 8% each year in the US, experts say medical tourism has been drawing more Americans looking for anything from cardiac care to plastic surgery. Europeans and Canadians are also traveling abroad for medical care, tired of the years-long waiting lists under their comprehensive national health-care systems. About 600,000 Americans - roughly 25% of medical tourists - will travel abroad for surgery this year, according to Paul Keckley, executive director of the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions in Washington, DC. It's an industry that will gross about $4 billion in 2009, he projected. Other experts estimate it could bring in ten times that level this year. More than a vacation with a perk for patients, such trips offer insurers a chance to cut costs, and many are jumping on board. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of South Carolina, for example, signed alliances last year with about a dozen hospitals worldwide to widen the coverage options for their policyholders. Jonathan Edelheit, of the Miami-based Medical Tourism Association, said US insurers can waive all deductibles and co-pays, offer to cover travel costs for the patient and family members, even throw in a cash incentive, and still save tens of thousands of dollars. Jordan already draws in Arabs from around the Middle East, as much for its medical care as its temperate climate. The World Bank ranked Jordan number one in the region as a medical-tourism destination, followed closely by Dubai and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, and Israel. It said the kingdom ranked fifth in the world in terms of medical-tourism destinations. The country's medical tourism revenues in 2007 exceeded $1b., while more than 250,000 patients from 84 countries were treated here last year, according to a recent Private Hospitals Association study. The majority were medical tourists; others were vacationers who were ill or injured during their stay. But it could face a tough battle against more established foreign locales such as India, Costa Rica and Thailand that dominate the sector. Keckley said the Caribbean Islands are still the biggest draw for US medical tourists because of their proximity. Working in its favor, however, are Jordan's English-speaking doctors, who are trained or affiliated with top US institutions such as the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic and Johns Hopkins. This "will resonate very well with the American market," said Alex Piper, president of the Troy, Michigan-based One World Global Healthcare Solutions, a medical-tourism consulting firm. Piper said his network of more than 140 million US and Canadian employers and major insurers would soon be linked with Jordanian hospitals. The Medical Tourism Association is bringing US health-care specialists and insurance providers to Amman this week to showcase the city's six internationally accredited hospitals. The group includes Irvine, California-based insurer Best Life and Texas Benefit, headquartered in San Antonio. The marketing campaign is also being featured on the Web, in industry publications and at conferences, including a planned international medical-tourism congress next year. For many Americans, the promise of cheaper medical care without compromising standards is a big draw, especially at a time when health-care costs are climbing and the global meltdown is forcing many to tighten their purse strings. While patients treated here, like in other countries, would likely have little recourse in US or local courts for botched procedures, six of Jordan's hospitals are accredited by the Health Care Accreditation Council in Amman and the Joint Commission International, an American nonprofit that accredits hospitals in the US and abroad and helps ensure international standards are met and adhered to. Fran Boyle, an independent realtor in Washington, DC, has visited Jordan several times - mainly for vacation. But her next trip could include replacement of some half-dozen dental crowns, she said, because the procedure would cost $1,000 in Jordan compared to seven times that at home. "Even with the price of a trip, it would be worth it," Boyle said.