Medical tourism facilitators or “operators” play a critical role in the growth of medical tourism because they can remove some of the uncertainty between providers and patients. This is an emerging field, and facilitators are neither regulated nor standardized, so there is considerable variety in what services they provide and how they provide them. Some facilitators have been organized specifically as medical tourism businesses, but many have origins as travel agencies and hotel groups that have added health care to traditional tourist packages.
Medical tourism facilitators make the connection between the patient and the provider, and they increasingly use popular social networks like Facebook (Facebook). In some cases, they use a very hands-on approach to bridge cultural and linguistic gaps. Some of the services they often provide are: patient intake, assessment, provider selection, medical and enabling services selection and follow-up. Their websites range from quite medical and conservative (WorldMed Assist) to more promotional and tourist-oriented (Planet Hospital). They often specialize in certain procedures in particular countries, i.e. Plastic Surgery in Brazil (MyBrazil Plastic Surgery Group), Affordable Cosmetic Surgery Prices Colombia (Cosmetic Harmony) or MedRetreat, even though this might not be obvious (see Kosansh, Healthbase).
- Patient intake—facilitators answer patients’ questions about whether medical tourism might be an optimal choice for the patent’s goals. Then they will let the patient know what information is required to assess the case. Based on this, the facilitator will suggest some potential provider sites.
- Assessment—facilitators relay the health information to providers so that they can assess the case and recommend procedures. In some cases, the facilitator “hands off” the patient to the provider, so they communicate directly; in other cases, the facilitator is actively involved during the assessment phase.
- Provider selection—the facilitator will help the patient decide what provider to choose. Some facilitators have extensive experience with former clients and can add considerable value because they know some of the surprises that can emerge. They have helped dozens or hundreds of people and develop a “sixth sense” for the patient and his/her significant others, who often accompany the patient.
- Package and contract—the facilitator will structure the understanding between patient and provider into a package that usually includes a contract with the provider, travel arrangements and all trip details.
- Follow-up—maintaining discreet and considerate contact with the patient is key to providing good client service, but this varies considerably among facilitators.
Facilitators function as brokers and can truly increase demand for providers by bringing them patients they would otherwise not have. They bring a supply of global medical care facilities to patients who otherwise would not know how to find or contact them. They increasingly self-organize in medical tourism social networks and communities (see Medical Tourism City). However, as brokers, facilitators are not absolutely necessary.
Most major providers market themselves directly to patients via their own representatives and websites. Finding the best provider for a knee replacement, whether the provider is in Singapore or Kentucky, is a similar process. If a patient goes abroad, there is more uncertainty in certain areas (travel, legal, quality), but still the patient must access and decide which provider will be best. Large international medical groups have their own outreach teams in target countries. These representatives function like facilitators, except they work with one medical group or network. They create relationships with insurance companies and medical groups in the target country to educate them about their services and the appropriateness for certain cases.