Medical Tourism: Travel’s new frontier?

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Health care costs continue to rise; many are seeking treatment outside of the borders of their country of origin. This type of travel is called Medical Tourism and is a rapidly growing segment of the travel industry. But is it safe? What are the risks? How much money can you save?  Today we look into the Who, What and How of this growing trend.

So just how big is this?                                                                                                                 Huge and Growing fast. According to the World Health Organization estimates approximately 15 million people worldwide traveled abroad last year for some medical treatment. This ranged from simple checkups or health screenings to dental work, fertility treatment, and even major surgery both mandatory and cosmetic. It is an estimated 50 billion dollar annual enterprise.  The United States was in the past the primary destination for travelers to come to for medical treatment. Over the last twenty years, that trend has completely reversed. Today while there are still many medical tourists who come to the U.S. for healthcare, Americans now comprise the vast majority of those seeking treatment abroad. This is attributed primarily to accelerating medical costs, a large number of people who can not afford or not qualify for insurance, and the increasing quality of healthcare that is now available abroad.

Where are they going?

In the last couple of decades, the quality of healthcare in developing counties has improved dramatically. Many doctors and healthcare practitioners have been trained in the first world nations and have returned to their home nation to set up residency.  As technology has advanced, many nations can offer service on par to or surpassing that of the United States. Individual countries have even begun to specialize in the service they provide medical tourist. Costa Rica is known for dentistry and periodontics. Brazil and Thailand are known for essential centers for cosmetic surgery. South Africa is building a reputation as a center for replacement surgery. Malaysia, South Korea, and Israel are also favorite locations.  This branch of tourism is a big business. Last year according to the WHO (World Health Organization) 15% of all tourist revenues were from medical tourists.

Is it safe? 

Yes, it can be. But do your homework. There are several organizations set up to help would-be tourists. You can check out most doctors online, even ones located abroad. Check their credentials.  Several counties have WHO ratings higher than the United States and many hospitals are owned by Western counties. The CDC (Center for Disease Control) has a helpful website offering advice. Several organizations can help you track safety ratings for the hospital, including JCI (Joint Commission International) which is the gold standard in hospital certification. There is even Insurance that you can get to help defer any costs of trip delays, additional recovery time, malpractice and most mishaps that can occur with surgery anywhere. Additionally, many insurance companies within the US are beginning to awaken to some of the benefits of this form of healthcare and some such as Blue Cross of California and Blue Cross of South Carolina  have started even to extend coverage to some international work (although this type of coverage is still in its infancy.)

What are the risks? 

All major medical surgery has an inherent risk. Traveling abroad can acerbate the risk. Post surgery recovery usually means the patient has a weakened or compromised immune system making them more suspect to local maladies for which a traveler may not have developed resistance. Traveling long distances can make even a healthy person weak and tired someone who has recently convalesced may be even more susceptible.  If a more protracted recovery is required abroad, travelers could face legal issues with a visa extension. Also, should something go awry in your treatment, even with insurance, your legal recourse could be severely limited as many countries do not extend the same rights to visitors that they do to their own citizens.

How much money can you save? 

The savings can be quite substantial. That is the major draw of medical tourism. Aside from the savings, there is also the ability to visit another country and recover in an exotic locale. But primarily most people do it for the savings and the fact that they can receive work on par to the quality they would receive in their own country. Depending on the nation and the work done the savings can be anywhere from 25% to as high as 90% that of their native land. Examples would include a coronary bypass in the US runs an average of 88k versus 33K in Thailand. A hip replacement in the US is around 100K and is 12K in Malaysia. Major dental surgery is 25K US and  7K in Costa Rica. The savings is so substantial a person can afford to travel abroad have the work done, spend a few weeks recovering and fly home and still be several thousand dollars ahead.

My Take: 

The risks notwithstanding, there are a couple of drawbacks as I see it.  For one, Medical tourism requires a high amount of money upfront. If you can not afford or don’t qualify for insurance, you may be too cash poor to provide the advance money needed for such a venture. The way it works in the United States is if a person becomes ill or needs work done they go to the hospital, have the job done and a couple of weeks afterward you receive a bill. Very little is ever said upfront about just how much this experience is going to cost. After all this, the patient tries to work out a payment arrangement to cover the costs over time. Often a person may be paying the bills for years.  Many people don’t have the luxury of going overseas to have the work done, regardless of the money they would save because they don’t have the upfront capital necessary.  If you were to secure a personal loan for the estimated costs, it might be worth it given the savings. But for many, this form of tourism may be the least attainable.

What are your thoughts on this topic? I’d love to hear from you.





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