The Growing Popularity of Medical Tourism

The Growing Popularity of Medical Tourism

With the costs of major surgical procedures in the thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, there is considerable motivation to shop around to see if better deals are available.  Many consumers are learning that there are indeed more cost effective options, but they are often found in other regions of the world.  Geographic location, however, has not been a serious obstacle for the almost million Americans that engaged in medical tourism last year, and as more people learn about traveling abroad for medical care, those numbers could skyrocket. This is a booming industry in the Third World that generates almost $6 trillion annually, or 9 percent of global GDP, and employs almost 255 million workers.

Despite a common belief that the U.S. health system is the most technically proficient—after all, shouldn’t one of the most expensive be one of the best?—there are many medical facilities in countries like Thailand, India and Turkey that meet or exceed the quality of care found in American hospitals. Many of these Joint Commission International (JCI) accredited facilities treat thousands of international patients annually and charge only a fraction of what an American medical facility would. In fact, many of the physicians and surgeons in these foreign organizations have trained and earned board certifications in the U.S. or comparable First World nations.

According to Med Retreat, the pricing of common surgical procedures overseas is considerably lower than in the U.S.:

Procedure

Cost in U.S.

Cost Overseas

Hip Replacement

$40,000-$65,000

$7,000-$13,000

Spinal Fusion

$80,000-$100,000

$6,000-$10,000

Heart Bypass

$90,000-$120,000

$10,000-$18,000

 

In addition to the immense cost savings, there are a number of other factors that make medical tourism attractive. Most of these foreign facilities are designed to look and operate like five star hotels, in which there is first class service, limited wait times, and abundant amenities.  Seeking services in these countries is often a necessity for patients seeking procedures that are yet unapproved or considered experimental in the U.S.

It is telling that medical tourism has become so accepted that many insurers are now willing to cover at least some costs with seeking medical care overseas. For example, Blue Cross and Blue Shield are assigning case managers to certain clients going overseas.  These case managers oversee travel, lodging and recovery care. Blue Cross and Blue Shield, as well as other companies are seeing the cost benefits of customers who find health care overseas, and are beginning to develop health plans that pay for some portion of these procedure, although there is still some reluctance in the industry due to limited or nonexistent care quality certifications in some foreign facilities.

For many consumers without health coverage, it is merely common sense to find a lower cost alternative to American doctors.  However, medical tourism also makes sense for many who have high deductibles or are underinsured, who would have to pay thousands in out of pocket expenses.  For those who have to pay $6,000 or more for a procedure in the U.S. there is usually a cost benefit to going abroad even with additional travel and housing costs.

Despite the many benefits of medical tourism, there are some disadvantages that Americans should consider first.  The most important risk factor is the absence of remedies if something goes wrong with a procedure.  Studies have shown that there is a higher risk of infection in overseas facilities which are more likely to reuse medical supplies or questionable blood supplies. There is also an increased risk of tissue rejection in transplant procedures. In the U.S., patients may file a lawsuit to obtain some redress for a botched surgery, but this is unlikely to be available in many other nations.  If the procedure requires corrective surgeries, this can be extremely expensive, as well.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also warns Americans that travel following surgery can increase the risk of infections and blood clots.  Americans who travel abroad should also be aware that they are at added risk of fraud and criminal victimization. 

 
Article written by:
Robert Moghim, M.D.

CEO, Onyx M.D.

 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.




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