Rising healthcare costs are forcing modern consumers to search for different ways to reduce expenses and still get the medical service they need. In recent years another solution has appeared. Medical tourism has people living in one country and traveling to another to seek medical, dental and surgical care.
With the globalization of factories, farming and finance, it is inevitable that yet another major industry like healthcare would join the ranks.
Healthcare is Going Global
There’s actually nothing new about medical tourism. The direction of the flow is what is new. Historically, people from poor countries traveled to wealthy ones in search of advanced medical attention. The flow is reversing today, as people from wealthy countries now hunt for affordable healthcare in less developed areas where it tends to be less expensive.
What may be even more noteworthy is the prospect of Americans going overseas for medical care, particularly to poorer countries. For generations, the U.S. was seen globally as the country to get the best medical care almost regardless of where in the world a person lived. But today, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates 750,000 Americans go overseas for treatments annually.
This follows the pattern of other major industries. Just as manufacturing firms relocate in search of low-cost labor, healthcare now snakes around the globe looking for similar cost advantages. Two factors enabling this are the large number of students from poor nations attending medical school in rich countries, and the growth of the Internet as a universal information source.
The Huffington Post’s online travel blog posted seven articles in the last year on medical tourism. The World Medical Tourism Global Healthcare Congress is scheduled for Washington, D.C. in September though its website appears to be for travel professionals rather than for patients.
There is now even a trade association – The Medical Tourism Association – with its own website. There are success stories, ads for guide books, and an upcoming industry events listing. Separate sections offer material for healthcare providers, governments, insurers, and patients.
Why Even Consider Medical Tourism?
Patients travel overseas seeking a high quality of healthcare, affordability, and access of care, but the most basic reason to go to a third-world country is the cost. In many developing countries, one can have major surgery for a small percentage of the cost in the U.S., Canada, Japan, or Western Europe.
But there other reasons going beyond cost.
Most elective surgery – such as cosmetic surgery, certain dental surgeries, and even hip replacements – are not covered by insurance in the U.S. But if the cost is much lower overseas, you might elect to make the trip for surgery.
There may also be procedures, such as fertility, cancer treatments or other therapies not approved in the U.S. or in other rich countries. A couple desperate to have a baby, or a terminal patient looking to participate in experimental cures, might find attractive options in a poorer nation.
Even in countries with single-payer national health insurance, medical tourism is growing. In such systems, surgeries involving non-life-threatening illnesses and injuries can land you on a waiting list lasting for months or years. Many people then seek relief through medical tourism.
The rollout of Obamacare – and the prospect of it ultimately transitioning to a single payer format similar to other countries – is also stoking interest in the U.S. As well, the growth in compliance and regulation as a result of the new healthcare law has caused a number of doctors and other healthcare practitioners to either abandon the medical field or threaten to do so. Medical tourism is increasingly seen as a viable option against the prospect of a smaller field of providers.
How Much Can You Save With Medical Tourism?
A major medical procedure performed in a foreign country may cost less than the out-of-pocket costs for the same procedure in the U.S. – to say nothing of the possibility of a claim disallowed after the fact for some unimagined reason. For example, a heart bypass surgery might cost over $150,000 in the U.S., but can cost less than $10,000 in India.
In general, poor countries have lower medical expenses than the U.S. and other western countries. In addition, they typically are not subject to the threat of legal action as medical practitioners are in America. It’s possible to have not only a major surgery in a third-world country, but also to pay less for of transportation and accommodations.
The Medical Tourism Association touts that with its membership you could “save up to 90% on medical expenses.” Annual dues appear to range of $2,000 to $5,000.
The Most Popular Destinations
The list of what we might call “hot” medical tourism destinations varies from year to year, and is also largely determined by the type of treatment or surgery. There is no one country as a haven for medical tourism, however, Mexico, Costa Rica, India, the Czech Republic, Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea keep coming up on various lists.
Consider two factors influencing the country you choose to seek for medical care . . . .
The first is the quality of care related to specific illnesses, ailments, or injuries. This can vary staggeringly from country to country. Narrow your choices down to the one, two or three countries offering the best care for your need.
The second consideration is cost. Even in poor and developing countries, the cost of certain medical care can change substantially from one country to another. This isn’t to say you want to look for the lowest cost destination; you want to balance out cost with the quality of care.
For Better or Worse, Medical Tourism is Gaining Acceptance
As medical tourism becomes more popular it’s also gaining acceptance. There are agencies, commonly called medical tourism providers, who coordinate your surgery and travel. They handle every detail of your trip, often including potential follow-up sources once you are back home. One site, advertising on Google searches, is MedToGo.com, which seems to specialize in Mexico as a destination.
Payment will typically be in cash since there is no insurance company paying or acting as an intermediary. However in the past few years, some health insurance providers have dipped a toe into the medical tourism phenomenon. Companies such as Blue Cross/Blue Shield of California, Blue Cross/Blue Shield of South Carolina, and Anthem Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Wisconsin have at least experimented with limited participation in medical tourism.
In addition, some independent employers encourage the use of medical tourism as a way of reducing health insurance costs. But as a general rule, at this stage of the game you should expect very little assistance from any institutions in the U.S.
The CDC issues the following risks associated with medical tourism:
- Language barriers that could cause treatment problems.
- Transmission of diseases, such as HIV, from reuse of syringes.
- Unregulated and/or poor quality medications.
- Anti-biotic resistance may be more common in some countries than in the U.S.
- Questionable blood supply.
- Flying after surgery increases the risk for blood clots.
Still, medical tourism seems destined to follow other major industries into greater public acceptance.
Have you ever sought medical care outside the U.S., or are you even facing such a decision right now? Leave a comment!