It's easy to see why Americans worried about the high costs of medical and dental services at home might look to other countries for less expensive alternatives. A reader recently asked:
"I've heard that lots of Americans go overseas for dental or medical treatments. Is this a good idea?"
The short answer is, "You can certainly find countries where high-quality medical and dental services cost a lot less than in the U.S." But "high-quality" is a totally subjective measure, involving many personal issues beyond just cost—issues only each individual can decide.
Medical tourism—the basics
The idea is simple: Head for a country where medical and dental services are a lot less expensive than they are in the U.S. and combine treatment with a vacation. Sometimes, travelers can pay for both the treatments and the travel arrangements and still pay less than treatment alone would cost in the U.S.
Medical tourism is most attractive for two kinds of treatment:
- Elective medical procedures that are not covered by medical insurance.
- Major dental procedures, for which many people have no insurance at all.
I suspect typical Americans are more comfortable with overseas dental service than with serious medical treatments.
A few years back, the "hottest" trend in medical tourism was bargain-priced dental treatments in Eastern Europe—notably the Czech Republic and Hungary. But that was when the dollar was stronger; now that it's really weak; those prices no longer look so good.
Instead, most focus has shifted to Latin America and Asia where, according to reports, medical and dental practitioners operate modern, well-equipped clinics and centers, many of which are attached to or affiliated with resort and hotel complexes. I checked the websites for several Asian and Latin American dental complexes that cater to American visitors, and found typical prices for dental services around $350 to $500 for a crown, $700 to $1,000 for a full denture, and $2,000 to $3,000 for an implant. Those prices are about half of what I pay locally.
Heading out of the country for dental work would seem to make the most sense in two cases:
- If you have a mouthful of untreated major dental problems—enough root-canal, crown, implant, or denture requirements that the potential expense might justify the costs and time of a special trip, especially if you can combine it with visiting an area you'd like to see.
- If you happen to live near or be visiting an area where dental services are cheap and you need just a few minor fixes or a cleaning.
Going a long way just to fix a few minor problems doesn't make any economic sense, unless you really want to go a long way, anyhow.
As far as I can tell, most Americans who travel outside the country for medical reasons do so for the following:
- Elective procedures not covered by insurance at all, such as cosmetic and weight-loss surgery.
- Big-ticket procedures only partially covered by insurance and which entail extremely high co-payments.
- Experimental procedures and treatments not yet approved in the U.S. by insurance companies or the FDA.
Americans seem to be more comfortable going overseas for elective rather than life-threatening medical conditions. Some, to be sure, are willing to look anywhere to treat cancer and other terminal conditions for which their regular doctors have said, "nothing more we can do." But that's a field fraught with quackery and false hopes, and I have nothing further to add.
Clearly, medical treatments overseas add new risks to the usual uncertainties. Among them:
- Overall health standards in many Asian and Latin American countries are well below those in the U.S. or Western Europe.
- You really know very little about individual doctors, their histories, and their qualifications, and they know little or nothing about your medical history.
- If you suffer delayed complications, you may be 4,000 to 10,000 miles away from the doctors who performed the treatments.
- Long flights immediately after surgeries or complicated procedures entail extra risks.
- If something goes wrong, you'd have a very tough time recovering malpractice damages—fewer lawsuits is one of the reasons foreign medical costs are lower than in the U.S.
Many Americans are apparently willing to accept those risks. And, certainly, many foreign clinics have a good track record of maintaining the highest standards and providing top-notch services.
Locating doctors and clinics
Travelers can locate overseas medical and dental services online or through guidebooks:
- Several online sites post listings for medical, dental, and optical services throughout the world. Among them are Bridge Health International, International Medical Options, Global Medical Services, Med Asia Healthcare, Med Journeys, and RevaHealth. These sites represent—or link to—medical and dental facilities throughout the world. The most popular areas seem to be Latin America (Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama) and Asia (Thailand, India, Singapore, and the Philippines), but Israel, New Zealand, and South Africa are also featuring some programs. Google "medical tourism" and you'll get lots more similar listings.
- Individual countries and clinics also maintain websites for medical tourists. Again, a quick Google search will return dozens of options.
- Patients Beyond Borders , by Josef Woodman, published in 2007, provides a worldwide overview of medical and dental facilities that cater to Americans. European price citations (based on euros) are probably well below current dollar costs, but the book covers Latin America and Asia quite well. The site Health Travel Guides also provides a wealth of information, and Wikipedia has an excellent summary of the field.
Disclaimer: I have no personal experience with medical tourism. I've occasionally needed on-the-spot treatment—a broken filling in Amsterdam, for example, or treatment for a sudden medical problem in Budapest—but those problems were all minor. I don't even know anybody who has gone out of the country for extensive procedures.