Medical Tourism: The American Invasion

Published: Monday, May 14, 2007
Americans have always traveled abroad for business and pleasure, seeking out exotic locales that offer excitement or financial opportunities that are not available back home. Now, we can add something else to the list of things Americans go abroad in search of: top-notch medical care. In recent years, the number of so-called “medical tourists” traveling overseas in order to seek medical care has steadily increased. Forced by skyrocketing US medical costs to turn to foreign hospitals and physicians, many Americans are booking trips to distant lands, attracted by the prospect of affordable operations and treatment ranging from cosmetic surgery to orthopedic procedures.

In 2006, an estimated 150,000 American patients traveled to countries like Costa Rica, Malaysia, and Argentina—with Thailand and India being the most popular destinations—in search of affordable medical care. That number is expected to increase as care here in America becomes more expensive and more people become aware of cheaper and comparable overseas alternatives. According to David Hancock, author of The Complete Medical Tourist, “Americans are expected to help turn global medical tourism into a $40 billion-a-year industry by 2010.”

Richard Wade, vice president of strategic communications for the American Hospital Association (AHA), says that Americans’ perceptions of who engages in medical tourism have changed over the years. In the past, the view was that Americans didn’t need to do such things, that the only medical tourists were the foreign patients who came to the US to receive treatment at our world-renowned hospitals. “They often looked like real medical tourists who’d come to New York, Baltimore, or Boston, have the care they needed done, and then go sightseeing or shopping,” Wade says.

The Good, the Bad, the Worst

Some foreign hospitals have begun to implement some of the latest healthcare information technology and recruit highly talented physicians (many of whom trained in the US), moves that have improved the level of care delivered at these institutions and raised the profile of medical tourism. Although these changes have made some foreign hospitals comparable to many US-based ones, it is still important for patients who are contemplating traveling overseas to seek medical care to thoroughly evaluate all benefits and potential risks.

For many patients, the most attractive aspect of medical tourism is the extremely low cost of care offered overseas—a 20–80% difference compared to the cost of many US procedures. This is a big deal, especially for the estimated 46 million Americans without health insurance who are unable to afford quality care. Imagine for example that you don’t have health insurance and you need a hip replacement, which costs approximately $40,000 in the US, but only $5,800 in India— would you choose to go abroad in order to save tens of thousands of dollars? Patients who have answered “yes” to that question and traveled abroad for a medical procedure have often reported receiving excellent care from qualified physicians and found better nurse-to-patient ratios and physician-to-patient ratios in many foreign hospitals that cater to medical tourists.

Access to and availability of care are also factors driving this phenomenon. Medical procedures and treatments that have not obtained FDA (Food and Drug Administration) approval are often available elsewhere. Given these benefits, are patients still putting themselves at risk when they seek treatment outside the US? MDNG editorial board member Jonathan Bertman, MD, says “I tell my patients that it’s risky,” when they ask about overseas healthcare. “It’s not like they’re risking losing a little bit of money—they’re risking their life. The question is, how important is it to them?”

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