Patients from developing nations have long traveled to the United States to access care they couldn’t get at home, but the high cost of U.S. care is now sending some Americans in the opposite direction.
As the COVID-19 pandemic winds down, people are showing renewed interest in medical tourism, the practice of traveling to places like Mexico, Thailand, Singapore and many more countries for a wide variety of procedures, from cardiac, cosmetic, bariatric, spinal, and orthopedic surgery to cancer treatment, dentistry, and infertility care. Bottom Line Health spoke with Lydia Gan, PhD, to learn more about medical tourism.
For Americans, saving money is the top motivator to travel for health care. Consider heart bypass surgery. In the United States, a patient without health insurance can expect to receive a dizzying array of opaque and confusing bills that add up to between $70,000 and $133,000. But the identical procedure can be performed by Western-trained surgeons in a high-tech hospital in Singapore for about $16,000 or India for less than $9,000-including medical costs, airfare, and hotel. Americans regularly cross the border to Los Algodones, Mexico, also known as Molar City, to save 70 to 80 percent on dental services such as crowns ($180 vs. $1,250), and dentures ($250 vs. $1,850).
The hospital experience
Saving money isn’t the only benefit of medical tourism. In many cases, hospitals that cater to medical tourists also offer a more luxurious experience, from private rooms and more personalized attention to dedicated centers that offer assistance with scheduling, interpretation, sightseeing, travel arrangements, and accommodations.
Further, instead of recovering at home, you can combine recovery with a vacation (as long as you stay within doctor-approved activities).
The best hospitals provide Western-trained health-care providers, but not every hospital in every country meets American standards. To ensure safety, seek care only from hospitals that are accredited by Joint Commission International (JCI), which is related to the Joint Commission that accredits hospitals in the United States. Any JCI-accredited hospital meets the same standards as those in America. In addition, seek hospitals that are affiliated with reputable American brands such as Johns Hopkins, Harvard Medical Center, and Mayo Clinic.
Consider a medical middleman
While you can arrange for international medical care on your own, it can be helpful to work with a domestic medical tourism facilitator (DMTF), which is essentially a medical travel agency. These companies match you with a doctor or hospital, make your travel plans, pick you up at the airport, offer translation services, secure your medical visa, and may arrange excursions. Look for a DMTF that is based in the United States, is certified by the Better Business Bureau, and works only with JCI-accredited hospitals. A trustworthy DMTF should have physicians on staff or be managed by someone who has an extensive career in health care.
Tips for success
Careful preparation can make medical tourism safer and more successful.
- Plan ahead. Before you travel, meet with your health-care provider to discuss your health status, the procedure, and travel restrictions before and after the procedure.
- Make sure you can get any needed follow-up care in the United States. Call your insurance company, if applicable, to discuss your coverage.
- Identify where you will be staying immediately after the procedure, and make sure you have a long enough recovery period. If you have chest or abdominal surgery, cosmetic procedures of the face, eyelids, or nose, or laser treatments, do not fly for at least 10 days to avoid risks associated with changes in atmospheric pressure.
- Find out what activities are not permitted after the procedure. Sunbathing, drinking alcohol, swimming, or engaging in strenuous activities may be prohibited.
- Make sure you’re up to date on all vaccinations for your home and destination countries. Consider adding a hepatitis B vaccine.
- Buy travel health insurance that covers medical evacuation home.
- Take copies of your medical records to your destination, and bring any new records home with you.
- Pack enough medications to last your whole trip, plus a little extra in case of delays. Keep your medication in your carry-on bag.
- Be aware of antibiotic resistance risks. The risk of antibiotic resistance varies by location. For example, India has the highest rates of antibiotic resistance in the world.
- If you are traveling to have a procedure that is not available in the United States, understand that you may have difficulty getting insurance to cover any post-procedure complications.