What is Medical Tourism?

I’ve been noticing that a lot of people are anxious and stressed out about going to the doctor. It’s not just the anxiety that goes along with having a potential problem, but also the rising cost of healthcare in general. 

Most patients reluctantly pay the rising costs of healthcare through increased deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses for major medical procedures which can contribute to increased financial strain. However there are others taking things into their own hands and are turning to medical tourism.

What is Medical Tourism?

Medical tourism refers to people traveling abroad to obtain medical treatment.

In some cases medical tourism involves people from less developed countries traveling to more developed ones to obtain medical treatment that is not available. However there are many other cases where the opposite is true and this happens when people from more developed countries such as the United States travel to less developed countries such as Costa Rica due to high and rising cost of medical treatment.

As of 2015 the number of Americans traveling abroad is estimated to be between 150,000 to 350,000 people and this number increases by an average of 20% a year.

Why go abroad?

Many Americans that go abroad for medical procedures can save anywhere from 20% to 90% of what it would cost in the United States.

The most popular reason why many people travel abroad for medical treatments involve:

  • Dentistry: As of 2019 it’s estimated that 800,000 Americans go abroad for dental care due to rising costs. Popular treatments include dental implants, veneers, crowns and dentures. The amount of money saved is in the hundreds and even thousands of dollars.
  • Cosmetic Surgery: Procedures such as breast augmentation, liposuction, eyelid surgery, rhinoplasty, abdominoplasty and breast lifts are the most popular procedures that are done abroad. Just like with dentistry you have the potential to save a lot of money.
  • Heart Surgery: These procedures include coronary artery bypass, cardiac valve replacement or reconstruction.

Most dental and cosmetic work is not covered by insurance in the United States and it’s expensive, so many people are traveling abroad to have work done and saving thousands of dollars in the process.

An example is LASIK surgery for your eyes. It’s not covered by insurance and costs $2,088 per eye on average, however if you travel abroad to South Korea it can be done for as low as $1,400 and this does not just include the surgery but the check-ups before and after also the procedure is done.

Although most medical tourists go abroad for dental or cosmetic work an increasing number are traveling for necessary procedures.

Even though the majority of Americans have health insurance it doesn’t mean they are fully covered. The United States is now the most expensive country in the world to give birth in. According to a study done by Childbirth Connection in 2013 noted that the average cost of an uncomplicated childbirth is $32,093 and a cesarean section costs $51,125 on average. Even with health insurance you are likely to have out-of-pocket expenses in the hundreds and even thousands of dollars. To save money, many couples are offshoring to give birth.

There are many medical tourists from the United States that are increasingly going abroad for cardiac surgery. These patients prefer to have major surgery in general at their local hospital, however due to rising costs of healthcare in the United States these procedures are becoming increasingly inaccessible for many people. 

These patients also feel pressed to balance their health needs vs. financial needs when they consider the lower costs. By doing this they are able to conserve limited financial resources and protect their home equity.

How about the standards in other countries vs. the United States?

When you are going abroad for medical treatment the standards will be different than in the United States and they vary from country to country. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) it is important to look into the qualifications of the medical professionals that will be in charge of your car and look into the credentials of the facility where the treatment is occurring. 

There are international organizations that have a list of standards to go by and they accredit the facilities that meet these standards.

These accrediting organizations include:

  • Joint Commission International (JCI): There is a joint commission that accredits more than 21,000 US healthcare organizations and the international branch accredits medical services from around the world.
  • DNV International Accreditation for Hospitals: A program offered by DNV Healthcare that is designed to support the development and improvement of healthcare quality and patient safety all over the world. 
  • International Society for Quality in Healthcare: Also known as ISQua is a member-based not-for profit community and organization dedicated to promoting quality improvement in healthcare.

There are many other recommendations to consider before becoming a medical tourist.

  • It’s recommended that you see a travel medicine provider at least 4 to 6 weeks before the trip. They will be discussing general information for healthy travel and learn about specific risks related to the procedure.
  • Make sure to have current medical issues under control.
  • It’s important that you have a written agreement with the medical facility or the group arranging the trip. It should discuss what treatment supplies and care are covered by the costs of the trip.

What are the risks?

Medical treatment in general has risks, however there are some of the risks associated with seeking medical treatment abroad.

  • Communication: This might end up being a challenge if the staff at the facility you are going to doesn’t speak the language as you.
  • Blood Clots: After surgery the risk of blood clots increases if you’re flying.
  • Counterfeit Drugs: Less than reputable facilities may give you fake drugs.
  • Antibiotic Resistance: All over the world antibiotic resistance is a huge problem. It’s a problem in the United States as well, but it’s worse in other places.
  • Possible Lack of Oversight and Accountability: This is a huge issue in many facilities all over the world. It’s important to do your homework first before committing to a facility.

How did I learn about this topic?

My interest in medical tourism began when I visited Costa Rica in 2016. When you are traveling this far from home for the first time you are definitely getting outside your comfort zone.

After an 8 hour flight including a two hour flight to Charlotte, NC and then a six hour flight to San Jose, Costa Rica the plane landed at Juan Santa Maria International Airport. A driver met me there from my resort and we drove for 3 hours to the Arenal region. 

We arrived at the resort after sundown, the first thing I learned about the tropics is that the sun sets and rises faster than it does in Massachusetts.  Every morning you’ll be woken up by both roosters and howler monkeys. There were other wild creatures living at the resort I was staying at.

It was during one of my group tours that I started meeting other tourists not just from the United States, but from other places as well. I learned about Costa Rica’s multibillion dollar medical tourism industry that included dental and cosmetic surgeries  and also included increasingly sophisticated surgical specialities like eye surgery and cardiac surgery. 

There are three big JCI-accredited hospitals in and around San Jose:

Clinica Catolica:

Clinica Biblica:

CIMA

There are board-certified physicians, surgeons and dentists at these facilities. About 50% of doctors at Clinica Biblica were trained in the United States. The lingua franca at these hospitals is English.

There is another perk to traveling to Costa Rica for healthcare and that’s the “recovery retreats”. These are resorts near the hospitals I previously mentioned and they have nurses and interns on staff while you recover.

According to the World Health Organization Costa Rica ranks as one of the top three healthcare systems in Latin America and increasingly ranks higher in healthcare than even the United States and Canada. 

Here’s another interesting fact life expectancy is a year higher than in the United States at 79.7 years. Healthcare is not the only contributing factor to the average life expectancy it was also due to a wider availability to fresh fruits and vegetables, high standards to drinking water and a more relaxed lifestyle.

Medical tourism may be for everybody, but if you’re the type of person who is willing to step outside your comfort zone and at the same time take things into your hands when it comes to healthcare costs it’s probably for you.

How do you save money on your healthcare costs?

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