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Is Medical Tourism a Viable Option? A Look at the Pros and Cons

by Kevin Mercadante

Medical tourism is the practice of going outside of your home country to seek medical treatment. Right now it’s far more popular outside the United States, but it is growing rapidly here as well. Increasingly, medical tourism is becoming a viable option, at least in certain circumstances.

Why medical tourism?

medical tourismBy some accounts, medical tourism has been going on for centuries. But with the rising cost of healthcare in recent decades, it has been growing in importance.

For the most part, medical tourism is happening for all the same reasons that jobs and entire industries are being off-shored to other countries. There are large cost imbalances that exist between rich countries and poor ones, and medical tourism seeks to take advantage of lower costs and wages in less developed countries.

For example, in high-cost countries such as Japan and Europe, people often seek treatment in less developed countries at far lower cost than what they can get at home. Also, in countries with socialized medicine – where waiting lists for certain medical treatments are commonplace – leaving people to wait months, or sometimes years before they are able to receive the treatment they need. Seeking treatment in a foreign country speeds the process.

The advantages of medical tourism

Why would you seek treatment in a foreign country if you have a decent health insurance plan in your own country?

Lower cost. The cost of a major healthcare procedure in a developing country may be only a fraction of what it is in the US. For example, it may cost $10,000 for open heart surgery in India, while the same procedure would cost $150,000 in the US. It is entirely conceivable that the deductible portion of the US treatment alone would be substantially higher than the total cost of surgery in India.

Medical procedures that are uncovered or unapproved by your insurance. Even if you have a good insurance policy, there are always exclusions. This is particularly true for certain treatments, such as infertility or advanced stage cancer procedures. Not only will these treatments be uncovered by insurance, they’ll also be very expensive here in the US. The lower-cost in less developed countries could enable you to have a procedure that you could never afford in the US or some other rich country.

Experimental procedures, and medical procedures that aren’t yet approved in the U.S. The FDA often takes years to approve certain drugs and medical procedures in the U.S. Many patients aren’t willing to wait for approval when there may be a viable cure available to them in another country. This applies to experimental procedures for critical illnesses, or something less critical that hasn’t yet been approved in the U.S. For example, several high-profile athletes have gone to Europe for certain procedures that aren’t yet available here in the U.S. Kobe Bryant has done this several times.

Many of the medical practitioners were educated in the US. Quality of treatment in a foreign country is always a concern. But it is worth noting that many of the doctors and other healthcare practitioners in developing countries received their medical education in the US and other first world countries.

Like everything else, healthcare is going global. Though we are used to getting our medical treatment locally, healthcare is in fact going global. Anytime that transition takes place – with any industry – there’s always a level of discomfort. We have already witnessed the off-shoring of manufacturing, customer service, and certainly investing, and we got used to all of that. Though there may be significant resistance to overseas medical treatments right now, it’s likely that those barriers will come down. In addition, there is also a trend in regional specialization of medical procedures between countries, just as we now have among competing hospitals.

The risks of medical tourism

As attractive as medical tourism can be, it is not without its risks.

Different or non-existent medical standards. When it comes to healthcare, the US is probably the most heavily regulated country in the world. Step outside US borders, and the standards will generally be lower. At the extreme, there may be no standards at all. Common processes that we take for granted, such as sterilization, purity of blood supply, and non-reuse of hypodermic needles, may have lower standards in other countries.

Risks inherent in foreign travel. Any time you travel to a foreign country, there are certain risks – those risks can be multiplied when you’re venturing to a country for medical treatment. First and foremost, if you don’t speak the local language, there can be communication problems (translation: make sure you have a trusted translator). You may also not comprehend local customs and practices. Finally, travel itself can be difficult when recovering from major surgery.

Long-term follow-up. Anytime you have a major medical procedure, there is always the necessity of follow-up. While you can be in a foreign country for a major surgery and several weeks after, it will be difficult to get follow-up at periodic intervals. Medical practitioners at home – who are not involved in the initial procedure – may be reluctant to handle follow-up unless it is an emergency situation.

Lack of legal recourse. For better or worse, in the US we love having the malpractice option! That is a course that may not be available if you are a medical tourist. For one thing, laws in a foreign country may not be malpractice friendly. And even if they are, as a non-national, you may not have sufficient legal standing to bring suit. In any case, attempting legal action in another country is extremely difficult.

The Centers for Disease Control recommends researching foreign medical providers through the Joint Commission International, a US-based accreditation organization that has been assessing facilities and providers since 1999.

The affect of Obamacare on medical tourism

Whatever the benefits or restrictions of Obamacare, it represents a government attempt to deal with the rapidly rising cost of healthcare. Whether or not it will be successful in this effort remains to be seen, but the trend of the last several decades has been ever higher healthcare costs. That outcome is likely to see nothing short of an explosion in medical tourism, as consumers look to find less expensive alternatives for necessary medical treatments.

Medical tourism may not be an immediate option in your situation, but it is definitely a development that needs to be monitored on a regular basis. The shift of any industry from one country to another is always a gradual process, and one that comes about due to intractable economic stresses. Whatever the risks of medical tourism, it’s highly likely that it is following the lead of other industries, in seeking lower-cost providers. That probably means that medical tourism will only get more significant as time goes on.

Have you taken advantage of medical tourism for any procedures, or do you think that you even might?


Published or updated December 2, 2013.
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