Next Stop: Medical Tourism


by By Lisa Cannon /

Posted on July 17, 2009 at 10:15 AM

Updated Thursday, Nov 12 at 1:52 PM

About the Author

Lisa Cannon has been a writer and editor for nearly 20 years. She writes about everything from the health benefits of journal writing to the best ways to recycle computer hardware. She lives in beautiful Portland, Ore.

Have you ever imagined yourself on a sunny beach somewhere, sipping a drink out of a coconut shell, recovering from knee surgery? According to a report from the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine, in 2007, an estimated 750,000 Americans traveled abroad for medical care and it is projected that this number is expected to grow to 6 million by 2012.

Medical tourism, a term that describes traveling across international borders to obtain health care, is a quickly growing industry. There are quite a few compelling reasons why an increasing number of people are considering it. (And it's not just to work on their tans.)

Passport to WellnessThere are many reasons to seek alternative health care services in other countries. Some patients are looking for the highest quality of care they can afford, no matter where on earth it is. But for most people, cost savings are the biggest motivation. They may not have health care coverage for a given procedure, or it could be that their out-of-pocket expenses would exceed the cost of a trip. Others decide to travel in order to get some privacy, and to use the time away to focus on getting well and help speed recovery.

Bob H., a medical tourist from Arizona, had this to say about his experiences: "I received my hip replacement surgery outside of the U.S. because it was about twenty percent of the cost compared to costs here. The medical staff was topnotch, from the anesthesiologist, nurses, after-care staff--everybody goes way above and beyond what they are obligated to do. I've been treated with humanity, as a person, not a number."

Taking a (Long) Trip to the Doctor While a wide variety of services is available abroad, the most common procedures are those that treat non-emergency conditions. Doctors overseas work with their counterparts in the United States to share diagnostics and complete evaluations to ensure the patient is psychologically and physically ready to a take a trip and undergo an operation. The most common types of procedures include:

  • Fertility treatments
  • Bariatrics
  • Cardiology
  • Cosmetic and reconstructive surgery
  • Gastroenterology
  • Gynecology
  • Urology
  • Orthopedics
  • Ophthalmology
  • Vascular procedures

Average medical costs in the United States are pretty high compared to some other areas of the world; medical tourists can save anywhere from 28 to 88 percent depending on the location and procedure. But it's hard to do a straightforward comparison because in most cases, traveling abroad includes luxury accommodations in an idyllic location and weeks of post-operative care and recuperation. Take a look at the average costs in India, New Zealand, Singapore and Thailand, four popular medical tourism destinations:

 Procedure US Retail Price India New Zealand SingaporeThailand
 Knee Surgery $40,600 $8,500 $16,000 $13,000 $10,000
 Hip Replacement $43,000 $9,000 $17,000 $12,000 $12,000
 Hysterectomy $20,400 $2,900 $9,900 $6,000 $4,500
 Spinal Fusion $62,700 $5,500 $17,800 $9,000 $7,000

Sources: Nora Institute for Surgical Patient Safety, Regence Business Intelligence

Finding World-Class Care There are a number of medical tourist destinations that provide medical care for the traveling patient. The spread of technology and increased standards from Western-trained physicians who speak English make traveling less of a challenge for American citizens. Many of the international facilities and physicians are accredited by the same commission that reviews institutions such as Harvard Medical and Massachusetts General.

Most success stories describe unparalleled access to the facility and physicians at all stages of the procedure. One of the key differences in treatments abroad is the extensive post-operative care. In many cases a therapist works side-by-side and has daily contact with the recovering patient. This focused care increases the results and the quality of the recovery, so that when the patient is released, they're ready to travel. As Bob puts it: "Communicating with the people who coordinated my travel, accommodations, and operation was above and beyond anything I have ever experienced. I've had a few orthopedic experiences in my fifty-four years &hellip and the surgeon showed tremendous interest."

Of course, medical tourism can carry some risks that locally provided medical care does not. Depending on the destination, medical tourists may be exposed to diseases for which they have no natural immunity. Additional problems may arise for recuperating patients flying in cramped airline cabins during the return home. These problems can be minimized by proper planning and setting aside an appropriate amount of time for rest and recovery in the destination country.

If you're considering going abroad for medical treatment, it's important to research your condition, treatment options, and destinations ahead of time. Talk to your primary care provider, and consider the level of care your situation requires. It may seem strange to pack sunscreen as well as crutches for a journey, but if medical bills, airfare and accommodations cost less than the deductibles and other charges you might pay in the United States, it might make sense to pick up your passport and go.

What Do You Think? We want to know what our members think of taking a trip for a health procedure. Please take a moment to complete this   on medical tourism to give us your insights.