A few years ago, Katelyn O'Shaughnessy was vacationing in Ireland when she fell, cut her knee and had to get stitches at the hospital. When the bill came, it was only $30.

"I couldn't believe how cheap it was," O'Shaughnessy said.

After that, she started researching medical tourism.

"I saw it as not only a fast-growing, untapped market but also a viable option for Americans who simply couldn't afford the healthcare being offered here," she said.

Katelyn O'Shaughnessy
Katelyn O'Shaughnessy

Enter Doctours, O'Shaughnessy's startup, which connects patients with doctors and clinics abroad for medical procedures. It pays agents 5% commission when a client books a medical procedure.

Other medical tourism facilitators exist, but O'Shaughnessy said Doctours' unique offering is its business-to-business component for travel agents.

She's no stranger to the agency community. O'Shaughnessy was the founder of itinerary management app TripScope, which was sold to Travefy in 2017. In fact, it was while she still owned TripScope that she noticed the trend of Americans interested in going abroad for medical procedures.

Each day, she would review itineraries agents sent to their clients. Sometimes they had holes. She would reach out to the agent to offer them a heads up, but found the holes were intentional.

"They'd be like, 'Oh, well, actually they're going to be in the hospital those two days,'" O'Shaughnessy said.

It kept coming up so often that O'Shaughnessy herself worked as an agent, facilitating medical tourism for awhile after selling TripScope.

"I built this network of doctors and was able to get a commission on the medical procedures," she said. "And I was like, 'Whoa! This is a lot of money, much more than I'm making with these hotels.' So from there, I just grew it."

Doctours operates at both a business-to-consumer and business-to-business level. Consumers can visit its website and enter the medical procedure they want (Doctours offers 330). A list of doctors who perform the procedure pops up, as does pricing; O'Shaughnessy said transparent pricing is important.

For example, a search for a hip replacement brought up four doctors, three based in Mexico and one in Croatia. Their prices ranged from $7,900 to $22,000. The search results also list how many hip replacements each doctor has performed and the languages they speak. 

Consumers can contact the doctor or click a link to his or her profile, which includes details on education and background, information about their hospital (including pictures) and more.

"We don't take just any doctor," O'Shaughnessy said. "They have to go through a very strict process to be on our platform, so people can then have access and know, 'OK, this is a doctor who checks out,' and I feel a little bit more confident in their decision to travel abroad."

All agents can work with Doctours, she said. They can be as involved as they or their client want -- potentially sending the client a list of the doctors who perform a procedure -- or they can simply hand clients off to Doctours. Either way, they will get a 5% commission on the procedure (Doctours takes its own cut for performing the service, but agents always get 5%).

"I'm glad we can make it transparent and make it accessible [to agents]," O'Shaughnessy said of medical tourism. "That's really what we want to do -- and make the travel agents money. I'm always looking out for travel agents."

Medical tourism has traditionally been an area most agents have shied away from because of the potential liability issues it presents. However, Doctours has limited liability because it is simply facilitating the connection between doctor and patient, O'Shaughnessy said.

"We do pre-vet [doctors], so we do everything in our power to mitigate any risks," she said. "But with that said, ... when we're connecting the two, we never recommend, we never diagnose."

Doctours does have employees who are knowledgeable in healthcare and can walk patients through what they might expect with certain procedures. For example, the company's chief medical officer is a doctor. But at the end of the day, Doctours simply facilitates medical travel.

Industry lawyer Mark Pestronk, also Travel Weekly's Legal Briefs columnist, said O'Shaughnessy's model holds up legally.

"The way to look at the issue is this: Are there court precedents that establish a duty of care for companies that simply give out doctors' contact info?" he said in an email. "I have never heard of such a precedent, so I would say that the answer is that it flies from a legal standpoint."

To date, Doctours has facilitated more than 500 medical procedures. The most popular at the moment are stem cell treatments, which are not available in the U.S., for everyone from professional athletes to people with Parkinson's disease. She estimated those treatments cost $12,000 to $50,000. Breast augmentations, running around $7,000, are also big sellers. 

Medical travelers save anywhere from 30% to 80% on procedures compared with U.S. prices, O'Shaughnessy said.

Mexico is the top destination because of its proximity to the U.S. Medical travel to Latin America, including Brazil, Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica, is also popular.

Medical tourism presents agents with a number of opportunities. For one, the sector is growing. Citing the American Journal of Medicine, O'Shaughnessy said that in 2017, an estimated 1.4 million Americans traveled internationally for medical care. That is expected to rise by 25% this year.

And travelers who are receiving medical procedures tend to stay in a destination longer than the average leisure traveler, according to O'Shaughnessy, leading to higher commissions on hotels. The average trip length is one to four weeks, and their spend is four to six times greater than that of a typical tourist.

"There is a huge opportunity for the travel industry to get a piece of this pie," she said.

O'Shaughnessy plans to continue to grow Doctours.

"Really, what we see is essentially being the market leader in the American market for medical tourism," she said. "Think of us like an Angie's List, where instead of searching for a plumber, you're finding doctors. When people think medical tourism, I want them to think Doctours."

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