Around the World Medical Tourism

A growing number of tourists are going on vacation to have heart surgery, cosmetic procedures, hip replacements or dental implants. A combination of many factors has lead to the recent increase in the popularity of medical tourism.

  • Exorbitant healthcare costs in many countries
  • Long waiting lists in countries offering socialized healthcare
  • Ease and affordability of international travel
  • Favorable currency exchange rates
  • Rapidly improving technology and safety of many procedures

The majority of medical tourists are traveling to Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, India, Hungary, Malaysia, South Africa or Thailand. The chosen destination may depend on the procedure that is required, the language spoken or even the prospect of recovering in an exotic location. A typical medical package usually includes flights, transfers, hotels, treatment and often a post-operative vacation.

For many years, the majority of tourists who sought medical procedures abroad were those in search of cosmetic surgery. U.S. citizens are still traveling mainly to Costa Rica, Thailand or Mexico. The Phuket Aesthetic Center in Bangkok provides a full range of cosmetic and reconstructive surgery including eye lifts, breast augmentation, facial reconstruction, liposuction and the more radical sex reassignment surgery. Many of the physicians providing these services have been trained or have worked in the United States. Hospitals are state-of-the-art and recovering patients are provided with round-the-clock nursing care.

More and more people are becoming aware that the United States does not have a monopoly on good medical care and for the difference in price they are willing to take a chance. A procedure that may cost $100,000 or even more can often be arranged for $10,000 or less including airfare, gourmet meals and one on one nursing care.

India has recently come to the forefront as an alternative source of complicated medical procedures. Heart surgery, orthopedic operations including knee and hip surgery, spinal injuries, chemotherapy, bone marrow transplants, cosmetic and even pediatric care are available at a fraction of the cost. One young lady from England who was working in India says of her experience of giving birth in India, I am glad that I was here and not in England. I was welcome to stay as long as I wanted, they looked after the baby. I had a private registered nurse, massages and yoga instructions. In England, I might have been out the door in five hours.

Taken as a whole, health care in most third world countries, including India and Thailand, is hardly up to the standards available in more developed nations.But these countries have begin establishing centers of excellence where the quality of care is as good or better than that of big-city hospitals in the United States or Europe. The Apollo Group Hospitals in Chennai or the Escorts Heart Institute and Research Centre in Bombay are two such facilities in India. The ultra-modern and luxurious Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand claims to have treated 350,000 international patients a year.

Why can this first-class medical care be offered so cheaply? The answer is simple. Everything costs less in these countries. Salaries, even for qualified doctors are less, as is malpractice insurance. Construction costs for new hospitals are low and now that the technology and physical plants are available,many foreign trained doctors are returning to work where they were born. They earn less, but for instance, one New York heart surgeon reported that he paid$100.000 a year in malpractice insurance. In India it is $4,000. Taken together with the cost-of-living, these physicians and surgeons can live more comfortably in their home countries than they can in the United States or Europe. The obvious benefit for those seeking treatment abroad is that they may find, with a little diligent research, an affordable doctor who worked at the Mayo Clinic two years ago.

There are two compelling reasons to seek medical treatment abroad. Patients from the United States are mainly the uninsured who could not afford treatment at home. One desperate man from North Carolina had been told that replacing his faulty heart valve would cost $200,000. There was no way he could afford this treatment. He found that the same procedure was available in India for $10,000 including round-trip airfare and a follow-up vacation while recuperating. To him, it was not a difficult decision. Patients from England, Australia and Canada, who are covered by National Health Insurance plans, travel to avoid the long waiting periods necessary for most treatments. One woman from Calgary summed it up by saying, If I had to wait two years for by-pass surgery, then I would probably be dead. One enterprising Canadian, after orthopedic surgery abroad submitted the entire cost to the National Health Insurance and they paid the bill because they admitted that they could not provide the same service in a timely manner or for the same cost.

India has been aggressively pursuing the foreign medical market. Experts estimate that medical tourism could bring India as much as $2.2 billion per year by2012. The industry has been growing by about 30 percent per year. Now, they are rapidly moving into the new area of medical outsourcing where subcontractors provide services to overburdened medical care systems. They are also beginning to work with the pharmaceutical companies on drug trials.

Apollo hospitals began negotiations in Britain in 2004 to handle their overflow of operations and medical tests at a fraction of the cost.Med Retreat, a U.S. company is offering customized medical tourism programs to private institutions and corporations seeking to lower their health care costs.

Perhaps the most unusual outsourcing involves the newly flourishing business of providing surrogate mothers for couples unable to have a baby. As a temp job, I feel I have a pretty sweet deal, said one newly pregnant surrogate mother. It is a nine-month job, no special skills required and the only real labor comes at the end. For this I will receive $5,000 which is about what I would expect to make in six years as a schoolteacher. For many, it is a win-win situation.

Are there problems? Of course there are. Life threatening complications, possible with any surgery, can arise far from home. Most of the countries that offer medical tourism have weak malpractice laws so, if something goes wrong, the patient has little recourse. It is also difficult to get long-term follow-up care. Presently, most medical insurance will not cover these procedures, so the patient must pay in cash. And as the industry grows, it will become more difficult to identify the reputable providers. It is up to the potential patient to do extensive research and become aware of all the available options. It is also imperative that he realizes that he will be assuming a certain amount of risk.

There are dozens of websites available to help you determine if this new option in medical treatment could be of value to you. Just enter medical tourism and be prepared to spend a bit of time going through the offerings. At the very least, it is an interesting educational experience and it just possibly could save your life.