Price is used to judge quality, but quality is also used

New research looking at cosmetic surgery tourism shows that different destinations are targeting potential customers in different ways with different messages.

One of my favourite quotes about price and value comes from John Ruskin, an English writer and thinker. It’s a philosophy that many who market medical tourism services would do well to heed.
“It’s unwise to pay too much, but it’s worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money – that’s all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing it was bought to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot – it can’t be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to add something for the risk you run, and if you do that you will have enough to pay for something better.”
Ruskin’s quote sums up the problem faced by the prospective medical tourist when researching the options for treatment in another country. It seems to be all about price. “Come to our clinic, our hospital, our country… and we can save you thousands of dollars, pounds, euros on what it would cost for surgery in your own country.”
The clinic/hospital/destination supplements its claims of lowest cost with the usual highest quality/latest technology /best standards claims. And that’s where the disconnect occurs. Cheap implies low quality/high risk purchase.
As Ruskin says, “….if you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to add something for the risk you run”….. which is why it is never a sensible choice to be the lowest cost offering in the medical tourism market. This is the thorny problem faced by destinations such as India where price is without doubt a major competitive advantage, but the price differential is so significant that patients will ask themselves: ”Why is it so cheap?”, “How can it be so cheap?”, “If it is that cheap, there must be something wrong with it?” “Am I putting myself at risk, if I choose the cheapest provider?”

Comparing medical tourism prices

The other difficulty that the prospective medical tourist faces is making realistic comparisons of price between their own country and the destinations that they are considering. This problem arises on two sides of the comparison.
Firstly, the patient needs to know what they might pay for the surgery or treatment in their own country. Let’s take a patient needing a hip replacement…how easy is it for him or her to find out what the price options are in their own country?

  • If the patient lives in the UK, he or she might expect to pay around $14,000, but this could vary from $11,000 to $20,000 depending on where the hospital is. Pricing information is not easy to find, even online. (Private hospital price comparisons can be found on sites such as Private Healthcare UK)
  • If the patient lives in the USA, what will they be charged for a hip replacement? Various online sources quote a price of around $50,000. But the reality is this could vary significantly or more depending on where the patient lives and how price competitive a local (or distant) hospital is.

So what are the options for these patients? Which destinations are attractive in terms of price? Let’s take India as an example. Typical online prices quoted for India range from $6,000 to $8,000. So let’s say….a hip replacement costs $50,000 in the USA, $14,000 in the UK and $7,000 in India. But does it? What gets omitted from most online price comparisons is the cost of travel and accommodation for the patient (and in many cases for a companion or relative…. most medical tourists don’t go it alone).
Take a USA patient travelling from Chicago to India. ….$7,000 for the operation, then factor in return economy flights for two people. Let’s say $4,000 (for a 20 plus hour flight with one stop). The price now rises to $11,000. Add in $1,500 for accommodation and costs during the stay. Add in another $250 for the insurances you need to cover the risk (travel and complications insurance). The price is now up to $12,750…. still a big saving on the possible price that you might pay in the USA (but looking much less attractive to the UK patient, albeit with a reduced flight costs).

If patients can’t compare price, can they compare quality?

In the recent Treatment Abroad Medical Tourism Survey, we looked at the factors that guided patients when selecting a clinic or hospital. Here are the top three factors as rated by 560 UK patients who went abroad for treatment.

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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.