Medical Tourism Patients Seek Cheaper Healthcare Abroad. Would You?

More and more Americans save money with foreign medical care. Is it safe?

Asian female doctor
©Thomas Barwick/Getty Images


What is Medical Tourism?

Medical tourism has become a travel buzzword. In a nutshell, medical tourism refers to travel in the pursuit of various medical treatments and procedures. Medical tourists typically go to overseas destinations, but the phenomenon also covers American domestic travel to hospitals and doctors that are less expensive than where you live.

Let's Get this Out of the Way: Does Health Insurance Cover Medical Tourism Overseas?

The answer is sometimes: if you choose your insurer's global network option; and/or your insurer is hooked up with a foreign provider, such as a hospital network; and/or you seek treatment in foreign branches of U.S. hospitals.

Who Pursues Medical Tourism, and Why?

Medical tourists are typically citizens of countries where expensive private medical plans are the norm, such as the U.S. For these medical travelers, surgery is often cheaper than your insurance co-payment, often as high-quality. Some medical travelers are Americans who have managed not to register for health insurance and need a cheaper option than paying out-of-pocket in the U.S.

Some medical tourists are citizens of countries that cover them with national health programs, like the UK or Canada. However, some Brits and Canadians seek foreign medical care to avoid a frequently very long wait for surgery and other specialized treatments.

Some medical tourists travel in pursuit of specialized procedures and experimental treatments that are not offered in their home countries; or for of medical care that are a specialty of the destination. Many medical tourists travel for foreign dental care, because dentistry is often not covered at all by their health insurance.

Fact Is, Medical Tourism Destinations Often Have Western-Trained Doctors and Great Nurses

Today's medical tourists find that their foreign healthcare experience is very like it is at home. Many of the overseas hospitals and clinics that market to medical tourists are staffed by English-speaking physicians and surgeons who were trained and/or certified in North America. An example: Bangkok's world-renowned Bumrungrad Hospital claims over 200 surgeons who are board-certified in the U.S.

Still other countries are renowned for their excellent homegrown medical education, doctors, and nurses. A partial list: Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Croatia, France, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, South Africa, Singapore, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey.

Another trend in medical tourism: overseas hospitals with strong ties to U.S. medical centers. For example, Johns Hopkins Singapore International Medical Centre is a branch of Baltimore's prestigious Johns Hopkins University, and there's a Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi, with doctors from the renowned Ohio hospital.

How Can You Trust the Hospital and Doctor?

There is a US-based vetting organization that accredits foreign hospitals that provide medical care to non-citizens: the non-profit, independent Joint Commission International, or JCI. Its stated mission "is to continuously improve the safety and quality of care in the international community through the provision of education and advisory services and international accreditation and certification." JCI has accredited healthcare organizations in over 100 countries. These providers include hospitals and clinics, laboratories, long-term and rehabilitation facilities, primary care, fertility treatments, home care, medical transport, and more. JCI is in turn accredited by The International Society for Quality in Health Care (ISQua).

Where are Medical Tourists Going, and for What Kind of Care?

Medical tourists seek a variety of medical care abroad. Expensive surgical procedures are the most sought-out. Medical tourists' most-wanted medical procedures include:

Medical Tourists Seek Cosmetic Surgery for the Face...

Some medical tourists step out in search of beautifying procedures including surgery (facelift, rhinoplasty, etc.) and wrinkle-filling fillers (Botox, Restylane, Juvederm, etc. Popular destinations include Latin America (Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico), Korea, and Taiwan.

Some American medical tourists travel to another part of the States for a particular elite plastic surgeon, such as in New York City and Beverly Hills. (Park Avenue cosmetic surgeon Dr. Sam Rizk goes one farther: his office helps his patients plan cushy recuperative stays in Manhattan luxury hotel

...and Cosmetic Procedures for the Body

Latin America is a go-to for body-enhancing surgery, especially Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia. The start of the art is advanced here. In Brazil, hospitals exist with a single cosmetic surgery specialty such as breast or butt implants.

And Some Medical Tourists Seek Pure Medical Surgery

Medical tourists travel for surgery of all kinds. These surgical procedures range from straightforward Lasik eye surgery to intricate neurological procedures to organ transplants to fertility treatments to sex-change operations. As an example, Pamplona, Spain is an international destination for neurosurgery and cardiac surgery at its Clínica Universitaria de Navarra.

And Many Medical Tourists Seek Cheap, Good Dentistry

Even when an American has dental insurance, the plan often refuses to cover mainstream yet expensive procedures such as implants and crowns, considering them "optional" or "cosmetic," which means that the patient pays 100% for the costs.

Overseas, these procedures can cost as little as one-tenth of what you'd pay in the U.S Popular dentistry destinations include Mexico, Central Europe, and Eastern Europe, where dentists are very highly trained. These toothsome European countries include Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Croatia (especially its capital, Zagreb).

Do Medical Tourists Make all the Arrangements Themselves?

Medical tourism is a complicated undertaking that involves researching and booking the medical treatments and then making all the usual travel arrangements (visa, flights, hotel, etc.)

But today's medical tourists typically do not take on the research and planning themselves. Numerous packagers – think of them as medical travel agents – offer their services to traveling patients, creating packages that include the medical procedure, the hotel, and, if you want it, the flight. If you Google "medical tourism packages," you will see hundreds of entries.

Enterprising hotels in popular medical tourism destinations are beginning to offer medical tourism packages. In Bangkok, numerous high-end hotels cater to medical tourists, including the Intercontinental, JW Marriott, The Peninsula, and Conrad. They offer guest promotions that include appointments and transfers to a variety of top-rated Bangkok healthcare facilities.

What the U.S. Medical Establishment Says About Potential Risks of Medical Tourism

Surprise. Many American doctors are wary of patients' seeking medical care abroad. They say that potential risks involve physician training and abbreviated postoperative care, The American College of Surgeons urges medical tourists to be sure to gather all their records and to vet the foreign facility to the best of their ability. And here at TripSavvy we say: read lots of online reviews.

Please note: This article aims to simply provide background on medical tourism. Before acting on this information, check with your healthcare provider and insurer.

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