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Popularity of Medical Tourism Increasing

This article was written by in Health. 12 comments.


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A few years ago, we discussed medical tourism. Every visitor who expressed an opinion would visit or have visited a foreign country or territory to take advantage of reduced costs associated with procedures. In the past several years, medical tourism has been increasing.

I mentioned my health insurance expenses are increasing 10% in 2010, and the increase will be even greater for my employer’s portion of the expense.

If I were to face an expensive or complicated medical procedure, I would seriously consider options outside the United States. Thanks to the internet, due diligence is much easier and faster, regardless of where the doctors and hospitals are located. Employers and health insurers are starting to see the benefit of medical tourism, as well.

Medical care elsewhere is as capable

If I have the opportunity to prepare for a major medical procedure, as I would as long as I’m not dealing with an emergency situation, there is enough information available for me to feel confident about choosing a location. The process calls for working with a medical tourism facilitator. The Medical Tourism Association maintains a list of organizations they have certified although their certification process is still new and in development.

Medical care elsewhere costs less

If I can receive the same or better quality of care for less by traveling overseas, even when taking travel expenses into account, then the financially responsible decision is to consider medical tourism.

Here is a comparison of costs for surgery according to the Medical Tourism Association.

Medical Costs

Even if individuals are not yet on the medical tourism bandwagon, employers and health insurers are looking at the cost savings offered by having procedures done outside the United States according to a recent DailyFinance article.

With Americans able to save 50% to 90% by going to places like India, Thailand and Costa Rica, the uninsured aren’t the only ones considering the medical tourism option. Increasingly, U.S. employers, faced with soaring health care costs that are expected to rise another 9% in 2010, are sending their workers overseas for care…

Insurers like Blue Cross Blue Shield are getting into the act, too. For good reason: Even when employers or insurers waive co-pays and deductibles and throw in airfare and spending money for the patient and a companion — some of the typical incentives offered to employees who have medical procedures done abroad — they can still save $40,000, $50,000 or $60,000 per surgery, depending on the procedure.

Medical care elsewhere increases competition

Global competition may be the market-based way to drive the domestic health care industry to lower costs throughout the entire system. Lately, the United States government has been focused on health insurance reform through new laws designed to increase care for more Americans, offer new options, and reduce costs.

I am interested to see how the industry reacts as more employers and insurance companies turn to medical tourism facilitators. I expect organizations representing medical professionals in the United States would try to limit medical tourism. The American Medical Association offers nine guidelines on medical tourism for employers and insurers, not quite discrediting the practice but helping to ensure patients remain educated.

The AMA advocates that employers, insurance companies, and other entities that facilitate or incentivize medical care outside the U.S. adhere to the following principles:

  1. Medical care outside of the U.S. must be voluntary.
  2. Financial incentives to travel outside the U.S. for medical care should not inappropriately limit the diagnostic and therapeutic alternatives that are offered to patients, or restrict treatment or referral options.
  3. Patients should only be referred for medical care to institutions that have been accredited by recognized international accrediting bodies (e.g., the Joint Commission International or the International Society for Quality in Health Care).
  4. Prior to travel, local follow-up care should be coordinated and financing should be arranged to ensure continuity of care when patients return from medical care outside the US.
  5. Coverage for travel outside the U.S. for medical care must include the costs of necessary follow-up care upon return to the U.S.
  6. Patients should be informed of their rights and legal recourse prior to agreeing to travel outside the U.S. for medical care.
  7. Access to physician licensing and outcome data, as well as facility accreditation and outcomes data, should be arranged for patients seeking medical care outside the U.S.
  8. The transfer of patient medical records to and from facilities outside the U.S. should be consistent with HIPAA guidelines.
  9. Patients choosing to travel outside the U.S. for medical care should be provided with information about the potential risks of combining surgical procedures with long flights and vacation activities.

Like the international outsourcing that has changed the shape of a number of industries, medical tourism lowers the costs for businesses that can then pass those savings onto the consumer. With outsourcing, whether good or bad, Americans benefit by the lower standards of living across in countries across the globe. A surgeon can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in the United States; the salary is high to offset the risk of malpractice suits. Surgeons in other countries may not have the same high risk, and with a lower standard of living, they can afford to be paid much less.

Would you consider traveling overseas for a medical procedure?

Updated February 10, 2011 and originally published November 30, 2009. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes, also known as Flexo, is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about him and follow Luke Landes on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Tom Dziubek

Not me. If there’s one area where I’m not cutting costs, it’s surgery. There’s a reason why foreigners with money come to America to get operated on. It’s one thing to drive to Canada to save on prescription medication, it’s another to go to Mexico to save money on a heart valve replacement.

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avatar SingleGuyMoney

Wow, there are really some differences there. Yes, depending on the procedure, I would probably consider travelling overseas. Of course, it would need to be a situation where my health insurance would not cover it and I was paying out of pocket.

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avatar John DeFlumeri Jr

There is going to be a major problem if you need a follow up visit, and you have to leave the country to see the doctor. Risky business, but it saves money initially.

John DeFlumeri Jr

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avatar Dan

I was one of those medical tourists, but mine was for a slightly different reason.

I have a rare eye condition that has no FDA approved treatment. If push comes to shove, at worst, I could need a cornea transplant. For this problem, I was referred to a top doctor in the field in this country — that alone necessitated an 1800 mile flight. Said doctor has a connection in Germany who had developed a procedure that has gotten appropriate recognition. First thing said doctor said to me was to visit his buddy in Germany, which I did in a hurry. Follow ups could be done back in the US if necessary.

My condition is also treated with specialized contact lenses. The best people I have found (and I’ve seen four contact lens fitters) are associated with this doctor. No matter where I live in this country, when I need lenses, I fly to Atlanta… when I first got my lenses, I think I made the LA-Atlanta trek once or twice a month for six months.

Truth be told, the only difference between flying to Atlanta and flying to Germany was a longer flight and a passport.

And btw, for those with an FSA account, plane fare to see the doc is an allowed expense.

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avatar Jim

I’ve got health insurance so I don’t see any big reason to fly off to some other country for health care. For elective procedures like cosmetic surgery it doesn’t really seem like the savings is worth it to me. I’d be generally concerned about the safety in foreign health care. But I guess if you really want a face lift then it might be worth it to fly to Singapore or Korea to save $10k.

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avatar Dave

I live near Shanghai, China, and I’d be pretty nervous about getting surgery here on the Chinese Mainland (the hospital reputations are not good). Hong Kong or Singapore I would do in a heartbeat, though.

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avatar Tom Dziubek

http://www.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/americas/12/01/argentina.model.death/index.html

This news story just broke this morning. It’s noteworthy not just because the former Miss Argentina died after plastic surgery in her home country but also because how popular plastic surgery has become there.

From the article:

“In recent years, Argentina has become an international destination for plastic surgery. The costs of such procedures there are much lower than in other countries.

Estimates say that 1 in 30 Argentines has gone under the knife, making surgeons here some of the most experienced on the globe.

Medical tourism has seen a huge jump over the past decade, and is projected to be a $100 billion global industry by 2010, according to the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions.”

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,470 (Platinum)

Thanks for sharing the story, Tom. While one data point is interesting, it doesn’t really prove anything. There is a risk to plastic surgery, even here in the United States, and unfortunately people die. In the news, we only hear about it when it affects a celebrity. We don’t know much about this particular situation. Did Miss Argentina do her due diligence in selecting a location for her plastic surgery? The fact that the article says her surgery took place in a clinic leads be to believe her situation would not be much like those practicing medical tourism from the United States. Regardless, every surgery has risks whether performed here or abroad.

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avatar Tom Dziubek

Right. My focus wasn’t necessarily on the headline of the article but on the portion that I quoted which stated how popular plastic surgery has become in Argentina, and the jump in medical tourism in general.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,470 (Platinum)

OK, I was just tying the article back to your first comment on the post.

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avatar Scott Minteer

Disclosure: I work for Bumrungrad International hospital in Bangkok, Thailand.

At our hospital, we do not recommend that people travel only because of the price. In fact, the reasons that people engage in medical care abroad are varied:

1. High quality of care
2. Almost no waiting times
3. Significantly less expensive procedures
4. Coordination with vacation/trip

In fact, most of our patients choose us because they do not want to compromise on medical care quality – you can search on “bumrungrad” and see people’s comments. In Thailand, there are many, many hospitals less expensive than us – and for a medical traveler, these are exactly the kind of places which don’t put a focus on quality.

From a pricing perspective, there are reasons why American would travel, even with insurance:

  • A round trip flight to Thailand costs about $1,000 from the US. Meals and accommodations can add $100-300/day.
  • A standard hip replacement in the US costs about $60,000; even with insurance the deductible and/or co-pay can cost a patient over $20,000.
  • The same hip replacement in Thailand totals about $15,000, including doctors’ fees and hospital stay.
  • Thousands of Americans come to Thailand each year for medical treatment because the cost savings more than pays for the extra travel, room and board. It makes a lot of sense for uninsured patients, but it sometimes even makes sense for those insured whose policies require a high co-pay or deductible.

We are not the only hospital in Asia with this level of quality – but we are a good example of why people do indeed travel for their medical procedures.

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avatar Paulo Yberri

In the end people have to consider how they can save money and receive quality care from a licensed and certified doctor. For some procedures, that may mean traveling to Mexico to have a surgery done. People need to do what is in the best interest for them, as other people are not going to pay their bills for them.

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