by Maria Lenhart, travelmarketreport.com – News articles about medical tourism often focus on the exotic – patients traveling to India for invasive heart surgery and the like. But for travel agents, the best opportunities in this burgeoning market are far less complex and much closer to home. “Agents should focus on the non-critical health traveler,” including travel for diagnostic procedures, exams or dentistry, advised medical travel expert Josef Woodman, publisher of Patients Beyond Borders. Woodman, a featured speaker at the Well-Being and Medical Travel Conference, will examine medical tourism’s most-promising opportunities for travel agents in his presentation. Too big to ignore He will also discuss how and why medical tourism is evolving into a market too big for agents to ignore. With an aging Baby Boomer population that has a vested interest in finding affordable medical and anti-aging procedures, demographics bode well for medical travel, he said. So too does the phenomenal growth of accredited healthcare infrastructure serving medical travelers in destinations around the world. These are just a few of the reasons why Woodman believes travel agents have a lot to gain by attending the Well-Being and Medical Travel Conference 2012, which takes place June 20-21 at the Phoenician resort in Scottsdale, Ariz. Is there a type of medical client that agents should focus on? Woodman: The likely candidate is not someone going to India for a serious procedure like a heart bypass. We really try to dispel this notion. Agents should focus on the non-critical health traveler, people traveling to have testing or extensive physical exams, MRIs or light dentistry. People, especially if they are uninsured or have high deductible plans, are finding they can save a lot of money on these procedures. They save enough to pay for the trip and get a vacation out of it. For instance, an MRI that costs $2,300 in the U.S. can be had in Mexico for $500. Any kind of blood work or testing is much less overseas. At the conference, I will be discussing some of the procedures that are most conducive for medical travel – procedures where there is a short recovery time and a predictable outcome. Do you think that most medical travel business for agents will be international or domestic? Woodman: Both. However, agents would be well-advised to focus on the short-haul traveler, rather than the stereotypically exotic traveling patient portrayed in the media. Are a growing number of hospitals in the U.S. targeting travelers, including domestic travelers? Woodman: Yes. The whole hospital landscape is changing. Hospitals are growing more specialized, so people who need a certain procedure are more likely to travel to a specialty facility such as a cancer treatment center that is beyond their backyard. The good news for agents is that they don’t need to have a lot of expertise to handle this kind of travel. These specialty hospitals market to travelers and are used to handling the traveling patient. They can handle the medical side. The agent can defer all the medical questions to the treating hospital and focus on the travel piece. Is medical travel a particularly profitable niche? Woodman: It can be, with focus, and as medical travel packages become commonplace. Medical travel is widely acknowledged to be high-ticket when procedure costs and longer stays are factored in. Also, medical travelers tend to bring companions, who have separate travel and tourism needs. How are destinations and infrastructure making it conducive for travel agents to get involved with medical travel? Woodman: With Mexico and the Caribbean on the rise as medical and health travel destinations, agents can now offer more options to medical travelers. In addition, hospitals and clinics are becoming savvier about marketing their services, including discounted packages and bundled offers with hotels and airlines. Increasingly, agents don’t need to be highly-trained specialists to participate. Will we see a growing number of destinations pursuing medical travel? Woodman: Yes. The market is growing in terms of the number of destinations offering high quality healthcare. For example, five years ago Mexico had no hospitals that were JCI-accredited. (JCI, the Joint Commission International, accredits hospitals in the U.S. and overseas.) Mexico was known chiefly as a ‘border destination’ for dentistry and cosmetic surgery. Today there are nine JCI-accredited hospitals in Mexico, along with several large new multi-specialty facilities, offering new options for the North American short-haul traveler. Can U.S. consumers feel confident about the quality of overseas facilities geared for medical travel? Woodman: There are now over 500 non-U.S. hospitals that are accredited by JCI, which also accredits hospitals in the U.S. So you are getting the same standard of care abroad as at home. In 2004, there were only 27 JCI-accredited hospitals outside the U.S. About the Conference Agents can learn more about the opportunities in medical travel by attending the Well-Being and Medical Travel Conference, June 20-21, 2012, at the Phoenician resort in Scottsdale, Ariz. Co-sponsored by Travel Market Report and Well-Being Travel, the conference will provide in-depth education for agents about all aspects of selling to and servicing medical travelers, including how to tap the market. Registration for agents is $199.