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Making the Case for Medical Travel

Medical travel is a growing trend, as increasingly, more people are traveling to seek care.

Anyone who’s ever traveled has likely done so with someone who’s sick. And most of us have traveled when we weren’t in the pink of health. The reality is that every day, millions of people are traveling while sick. But increasingly, many of them are traveling because they are sick and seeking the care they need to get better. Unless we are one of them, we are usually not aware of these medical travelers, their special needs, or the service industry that has grown to meet those needs.

We recognize the user experience as critical to great design: we assess workplaces on how well they support employees, and we evaluate hospitals and healthcare services from the patient’s viewpoint. So, let’s consider travel from the passengers’ perspective, but let’s shift our focus from healthy travelers to those who aren’t. Let’s look at travel (specifically air travel) through the lens of medical travel and examine what that might mean for airports and hospitals, particularly from the standpoints of design and real estate.

What Is Medical Travel?

Technology is disrupting societies, cultures and economies, but it’s also creating new industries. One of these industries is medical travel. Often described as “medical tourism” or “health tourism,” medical travel is a result of a shrinking world that is increasingly accessible, personalized and shared.

Its customers are global patients who travel outside their place of residence for the purpose of receiving medical care. Faced with rising healthcare costs, these patients, and their healthcare providers and insurers, are seeking new sources of quality medical services at affordable rates. And these increasingly affluent and mobile patients are choosing to travel to get that care. These trends—rising healthcare costs, more affluent patients with greater access to air travel—are the drivers of medical travel.

Current market research indicates that international medical travel (“tourism”) is an established global industry, generating about $45.5-72 billion annually based on approximately twelve million cross-border patients. Worldwide, the market is growing at a rate of 15-25 percent annually. About 1,400,000 Americans will travel outside the U.S. for medical care in 2016.

Although the domestic medical travel market has been slower to develop, there are reasons to expect that it will catch up, absorb and surpass the international one. For one thing, the same trends that drove the development of international medical travel—for example, an aging, affluent, mobile world population seeking the best quality healthcare for lower costs—apply equally to the domestic market. And the superlative quality of U.S. healthcare can offset the higher cost of medical travel.

Supporting growth for both markets are new services—such as medical travel facilitators and transport services—that manage medical travel for patients, employers and insurers. New insurance benefits are being offered that reduce the costs of planned treatment by bundling high-quality provider case rates with dispersed regional sites of excellence. These and other models that provide the best healthcare at a reasonable cost and with little hassle will become increasingly popular with patients—even if they have to travel for it.

What Does It Mean for Medical Facilities?

Medical travel is not a wholly new development. International and domestic patients have long come to the U.S. seeking first-in-class, highly specialized treatment and care. Many leading U.S. hospitals and clinics have established reputations as “go-to” medical “centers of excellence” for many patients, particularly those overseas who have limited or no access to critical specialties such as cardiology and oncology.

Cleveland Clinic Global Center for Health Innovation.

One of these “centers of excellence” is the Cleveland Clinic, which began hosting Saudi Arabian cardiac patients in the 1970s. The consequent boost to its reputation and resulting increase in patients and revenue has made the Clinic one of the top medical destinations in the world. As a result, the Cleveland Clinic Foundation has become a major player in Cleveland’s real estate market, driving the development of buildings ranging from patient hotels to healthcare clinics and centers to the half-billion-dollar Cleveland Global Center for Health Innovation and Convention Center, which opened in 2015. This healthcare-oriented development has not only fueled the Clinic’s growth as a destination medical center, but is part of Cleveland’s transformation into an appealing travel destination.

Other established medical centers of excellence have developed their facilities into world-renowned destinations in their own right. And like the Cleveland Clinic, some are going beyond their facilities by promoting significant development of their cities. The Mayo Clinic and the City of Rochester are planning $6.5 billion of urban development to make Rochester, Minn., an attractive destination for all travelers. A new city center is on the boards, with starred restaurants and hotels, parks and other urban amenities to support and attract not only medical travelers, but business and leisure travelers as well.

What Does It Mean for Airports?

More healthcare destinations means more medical travelers, and airports and other transit hubs will have to contend with the special requirements of this new type of passenger.

Airports are not new to accommodating such passengers. Besides providing accessible facilities, concourse transport services, priority processing and dedicated security screening, many airports are providing additional services and facilities that begin to meet a broader range of passenger needs, including those of the medical traveler.

Most airports have basic medical facilities to cover traveler and employee emergencies, but some now have expanded travel clinics that can provide out-patient, land-side medical services, such as immunizations, to non-passengers. Many of the more established medical travel markets, such as Malaysia, have self-contained, private passenger lounges dedicated exclusively to medical travelers. Most of these models are fairly standard and maintain the airport’s critical needs (such as efficiency, controlled access, security, safety and flexibility) with little in the form of innovation that more specifically addresses the patient traveler’s fundamental sensitivities: privacy and mobility.

LAX One World Lounge. Photo: Hedrich Blessing Photographers.

However, two models step beyond the current dedicated lounges and other medical facilities to create increased privacy and easier mobility. The first, medical hold rooms at dedicated gates, is a customized extension of current terminal and concourse design, similar to business lounges. The second, dedicated medical terminals, is a more radical approach for meeting all of the criteria for both airport operators and patient travelers. Both provide opportunities for branding and other tie-ins to the destination medical centers that these facilities service. More importantly, they give dedicated, secure access to travel services specifically tailored to the patient traveler without compromising standard airport operations for the typical passenger.

Carolinn Kuebler brings a truly integrative and holistic approach to architecture. Her background in both art and science fuels her passions for the aesthetic and technique of architecture. Her approach balances the intellectual and intuitive aspects of architecture and keeps the human experience as the primary focus of design. Carolinn has over 25 years of broad architectural experience, delivering projects ranging from small, high-end interiors to government headquarters to airport terminals. Contact her at carolinn_kuebler@gensler.com.