Google warning for medical tourism agencies and facilitators

Google actions sound a warning for medical tourism agencies and facilitators.

Last week, Google took action in the UK to exclude UK agencies involved in the referral business for drug and addiction from its Adwords programme. This should sound a warning for medical tourism agencies and facilitators who earn their money from commissions on patient referral.

The UK’s Sunday Times newspaper conducted an investigation into the relationship between Google, agents who refer patients to UK addiction centres and the addiction clinics and facilities that provide support for drug and alcohol addiction. The Sunday Times article, “Google makes millions from plight of addicts” exposed a number of issues:

  • Addiction clinics and service providers such as Priory Group, Gladstones, Charterhouse, Regain Recovery, Castle Craig and Bayberry charge £5,000 to £30,000 per month for residential rehabilitation for addiction.
  • The business is highly competitive. Sitting between clinics and patients are “advice lines” such as Addiction Helper and ADT Healthcare – agencies and brokers who generate patient enquiries, discuss the options with patients and then refer them to selected clinics.
  • The agencies spend large sums on Google advertising to attract patients. The Sunday Times reported that Pay Per Click rates of up to £200 per click had been paid to Google, and that Addiction Helper was spending up to £350,000 a month on Google advertising.
  • The brokers then take a commission of up to 30% from the receiving clinic. It is a highly lucrative business.
  • The director of ADT Healthcare, was quoted as saying that he would “definitely not” tell the patients about his 30% referral fee because they “don’t like the idea of paying broker fees

“Google removes advertising

As a result of the Sunday Times investigation, Google removed all advertisements related to the addiction industry from its UK platforms. Google refuses to take advertisements from referral agents in the USA where the practice is against the law in several states. In Florida, offering or accepting cash for “patient brokering” is an offence punishable by up to five years in prison.

Google made these comments:

“We work to help healthcare providers – from doctors to hospitals and treatment centres – get online and connect with people who need their help. Substance abuse is a growing crisis and has led to deceptive practices by intermediaries that we need to better understand. In the US, we restricted ads entirely in this category and we have decided to extend this to the UK as we consult with local experts to update our policy and find a better way to connect those that need help with the treatment they need”.

A warning for medical tourism agencies and facilities

The business model in the UK addiction business is similar to the way that medical tourism agencies and facilities operate between patients and hospitals and clinics. This Sunday Times investigation has focused specifically on the money made by Google from agencies, and ultimately from patients who need addiction treatment. What it also highlights is the murky world of referral fees and kickbacks, outlawed in some parts of the globe, and a common element of the medical tourism business.

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As Editor in Chief of International Medical Travel Journal (IMTJ) and a Healthcare Consultant for LaingBuisson, Keith Pollard is one of Europe’s leading experts on private healthcare, medical tourism and cross border healthcare, providing consultancy and research services, and attending and contributing to major conferences across the world on the subject. He has been involved in private healthcare, medical travel and cross border healthcare since the 1990s. His career has embraced the management of private hospitals in the UK, research and feasibility studies for healthcare ventures, the marketing and business development aspects of healthcare and medical travel and publishing, research and consultancy on cross border healthcare.