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What's New in Overseas Medical and Dental Travel?

AskEd & AnswerEd
by , SmarterTravel Staff
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Editor's Note: This story was originally published on October 25, 2010. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, AskEd & AnswerEd, destination, Ed Perkins, family travel, health and safety, senior travel.

Even with expanding health coverage, many of you may face large out-of-pocket charges for medical and dental procedures. An entire submarket within the travel industry caters to you, and it shows no signs of disappearing. A reader recently asked whether medical tourism would be a good idea.

"Can I cut my medical costs by traveling overseas for medical and dental treatments?"

My short answer remains what it's been: "Depending on your circumstances, you might well be able to cut your costs, but before you decide, weigh the pluses and minuses." Here are my answers to 10 key questions about medical tourism.

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Is Medical Tourism a Big Deal?

As the name implies, "Medical Tourism" describes travel to some foreign country for the primary purpose of getting medical or dental treatments. Medical tourism exists primarily because medical costs are extremely high in the U.S. and very high in many other industrialized countries, while excellent medical care is available at much lower costs in many other places.

Conjectures about the number of people who engage in medical tourism vary wildly. The most professional study I know, by a respected consultant organization, estimated that somewhere around 1 million Americans travel "abroad" for medical treatment. On the other hand, other sources say the number is several times that figure. Even at that relatively low level, however, it's a big business for many organizations that facilitate medical tourism and provide treatments to American visitors. And Americans aren't the only medical tourists. Quite a few Western Europeans head to foreign lands for at least some medical treatments.

Who Travels Abroad for Medical Care?

As far as I can tell, medical tourism might interest you in seven situations:

  • If you have no medical insurance but don't qualify for any sort of government assistance.
  • If you face a critical medical problem and your insurance benefits leave you with a big co-payment.
  • If you're considering an elective treatment that your insurance doesn't cover at all, typically including such purely cosmetic procedures as facelifts and liposuction.
  • If you suffer from a condition, such as the need for a transplant, that your insurance covers but entails an unacceptably long wait.
  • If you like the idea of combining necessary medical treatments with a semi-vacation visit to some attractive area.
  • If your insurance company suggests foreign treatment and the terms are better than if you remain at home.
  • If you've decided to try treatments and medications that are not approved or available in the U.S.

Where Do Medical Tourists Go?

One big facilitator of medical tourism lists some 44 countries as "affiliated destinations," ranging from Argentina and Austria to the United Arab Emirates and Vietnam. However, much of the action for North American residents seems centered on Central America, South Asia, and Eastern Europe.

Are Foreign Doctors and Hospitals Safe?

I guess nobody truly knows whether any doctor or hospital, anywhere, is truly "safe." But many of the foreign doctors who specialize in overseas patients boast impressive credentials, typically from top U.S., Canadian, and European medical schools.

In addition, several organizations, including Accreditation Canada, the Joint Commission International (based in the U.S.), and British-based QHA Trent provide extensive accreditation services on many prominent overseas medical facilities and suppliers. In the U.S., the American Medical Association has also issued guidelines for foreign medical services.

How Big are the Cost Differences?

Medical tourism promoters tout price examples with "savings" up to 90%, compared with current U.S. prices. Even though many of those claims look exaggerated, I get the impression that you really can cut the costs of big-ticket procedures at least in half and often more. Obviously, however, you have to check specific procedures and options to decide how much you can cut your own costs.

What Are the Risks?

Clearly, foreign medical treatments add new risks to the usual uncertainties. Among them:

  • You don't know the individual doctors, their histories, and their qualifications.
  • Foreign doctors don't know your medical history.
  • Delayed complications could hit you after you return home, thousands of miles away from the doctors who provided the treatment.
  • Unapproved or unavailable procedures could lead to serious scams, fakery, and even life-threatening treatments.
  • Transplants in some areas may use illegally obtained organs.
  • Malpractice lawsuits are far more difficult in other countries.

Do Dental Procedures Work the Same Way?

In principle, dental procedures work the same way that medical travel does. My guess is that overseas dental treatment appeals to more Americans than medical treatment: Far fewer have any sort of dental insurance, and dental procedures are generally not as critical as big-ticket medical ones.

Because the overall cost levels are usually lower, most Americans probably go no farther than Mexico for low-cost dental treatment. Both border cities and resort centers post a large number of dental services. However, over the years, Central America and Eastern Europe have also been important centers of foreign dental work. You can arrange dental tourism through the same agencies that arrange medical trips.

Where Can I Get More Information?

You can find quite a bit of information about medical tourism, in general, and country-specific information on clinics, doctors, and prices. As is usually the case, websites are among your best sources for extensive information:

  • Wikipedia contains an extensive discussion of medical tourism, and a companion piece on dental tourism provides a good overview.
  • Sister site TripAdvisor posts several forums on overseas medical and dental tourism, along with reports from people who have used those treatments.
  • HealthCare International is a nonprofit online agency that provides information on medical tourism for Americans.
  • All Medical Tourism posts articles about various aspects of medical and dental tourism, plus an interactive search function for providers.

How Do I Arrange Medical Tourism?

Dozens of outfits sell complete medical-trip packages, including locating doctors, and arranging accommodations and air travel. Among them:

Also, several of the nominally "information" sources, listed above, also post links to suppliers. A quick Google search will return lots of others. The packagers emphasize that by screening doctors and facilities they can select the best option for your trip. They also claim that they can get the best prices. Many post "price comparisons" that may or not be accurate or even realistic. As usual, we list them for information only and do not recommend or vouch for any individual agency.

What's the Next Step if I'm Interested?

Your first step should always be to do some serious research. Look at many of the websites and books; ask around among your friends or co-workers; and raise the question with your primary care doctor or dentist.

Then, before you commit, try to nail down your total costs, comparing the expenses if you stay home or if you head somewhere. If travel and hotel accommodations aren't included, figure in what they'll cost. Decide whether the combination of cost factors and the travel experience looks attractive. If so, give it a try.

For myself, I can't say whether medical tourism is a "good" idea for any individual. You have to decide for yourself.

Your Turn

Would you go overseas for a medical procedure or treatment? Tell us why or why not by adding a comment below!

 
 
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