In the last year, about 750,000 patients sought cheaper, friendlier, safer medical treatment via ‘medical tourism’, outside the borders of the US, mostly in Asia and Latin America – and in Europe too, for that matter.
Need expensive dental work done? Why not combine it with a trip to Thailand, where you can have high-quality dentistry performed for a tiny fraction of what you’d pay in the US? The savings will more than cover your travel expenses, plus leave enough left over so that you can enjoy a Thai massage on the beach and elephant rides in Chang Mai.
“Medical tourism” no longer is a secret indulged in by the enlightened few. In the last year, about 750,000 patients sought treatment outside the borders of the US, mostly in Asia and Latin America — and in Europe too, for that matter. According to a recent article in Time Magazine, experts anticipate that by the year 2010, six million Americans will seek medical treatment abroad. In fact, some insurance companies — never laggards when it comes to making money — have taken stock of the situation and decided to now cover procedures performed overseas. After all, a penny saved is a penny earned!
The reason for the overseas migration of patients needing medical care mostly centers on cost, particularly for those patients who lack health insurance or who owe a huge co-payment. While dental work accounts for 40 percent of medical tourism, increasing numbers of people go to foreign countries for more extensive treatment and surgeries — hip replacements, sex-change operations, plastic surgery, cancer care, heart transplants, and so on. Any surgery that can be performed in the US can be performed elsewhere for less — and for far, far less in places like Cuba, Thailand, and Mexico.
For example, total hip replacements cost an average of $24,000 in the US but only $6300 in India, including travel; and heart bypass surgery that costs upwards of $100,000 in the US averages about $10,000 in India. Knee surgery that would cost about $15,000 in the US goes for about $4500, including airfare, in Mexico, and dental implants that would cost $4000 in the US go for about $440 in Panama! Patients save “up to 75% on medical care” by getting it in Mexico, according to an organization that assists patients seeking treatment abroad — MedToGo in Tempe, Arizona — and the savings are just as dramatic in many other countries.
But money isn’t everything (unless you’re an insurance company). Another reason that medical tourism has become so popular has to do, believe it or not, with the quality of care patients report receiving on foreign shores. That’s right: quality! “I was treated like a respected guest as well as a patient in need of good medical care,” says Steven Cherkas in describing the double bypass surgery he had performed in Thailand in an AARP Bulletin article. Cherkas now avoids healthcare in the US and instead travels to Thailand for all his medical needs. “They have state-of-the-art everything,” he says.
The fact is that not only is medical care off-the-charts expensive in the US — the quality of care is arguably inferior. A new study just released by The Commonwealth Fund compared healthcare in seven industrialized nations, and the US had the lowest rankings in ease of getting appointments and in patient satisfaction, and some of the highest rates of lab test errors and medical or medication errors in the world. One-third of all US patients receiving care for chronic conditions reported medical, medication, or test errors in the past two years. The CDC ranks the US 72nd in the world in health system attainment and 37th in performance, while Costa Rica, for instance (a favorite for medical tourism), ranks 25th in attainment and 36th in performance. Cuba comes in at 31 and 39, and Mexico still ahead of the US at 63.
In other words, any fears you might have about inferior treatment abroad probably aren’t justified. It’s not like US hospitals really provide better or safer care than hospitals in many other countries around the world now — statistically speaking. And anyway, if you do decide to go abroad for treatment, you don’t need to go cold, without support, recommendations, or information. Loads of agencies now exist that specialize in helping US patients find high-quality care in other countries. Many of these agencies will make all the travel arrangements for you and still save you a boatload of money.
In the end, while it’s reassuring to know that cheaper, friendlier, safer treatment may exist elsewhere, it’s perhaps more cogent to focus on avoiding needing treatment in the first place. The fact that so many people need surgery — whether they get it in the US or abroad — indicates a population not focused enough on prevention. If you follow healthy lifestyle recommendations and pay attention to your own baseline of health, it might be hoped that trip to Mexico or Thailand or Costa Rica will be just for pleasure — you won’t need medical intervention to restore your body to health.