6 tips for engaging in medical tourism

Getting medical procedures abroad requires prior research and planning.

  • By Geoff Williams,
  • U.S. News & World Report
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If you need to undergo an expensive medical procedure, you may be contemplating getting treatment abroad. Enter medical tourism, an alternative for those seeking low-cost health care overseas.

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It's no wonder why medical tourism – visiting foreign facilities to get anything from cosmetic and elective surgery to cardiac procedures – has taken off. According to the federal government website HealthCare.gov, the average cost of a three-day hospital stay is approximately $30,000. If you're uninsured or you want to reduce health care expenses, medical tourism can be an especially appealing option to save money.

However, there are many benefits, drawbacks and caveats to factor in before engaging in medical tourism. Here's what to consider, and expert strategies for getting the most out of medical treatments abroad to reduce costs.

Here are tips for engaging in medical tourism:

  • Do your homework.
  • Look for companies that specialize in medical tourism.
  • Find reputable hospitals.
  • Keep your doctor apprised of your plans.
  • Understand how the procedure is performed abroad.
  • Factor in the pros and cons.

Do your homework

Just as you would budget for a vacation, you'll want to determine the cost of getting medical care abroad and traveling internationally to ensure you will save money by getting a medical procedure overseas. That said, if maximizing savings is not your ultimate goal, you may be enticed by the opportunity to travel somewhere abroad, even if you spend a little more than if you had the procedure at home.

Still, you'll want to consider all associated costs. The website FairHealthConsumer.org offers medical care cost and dental cost calculations to estimate what you would pay for various procedures and surgeries in the ZIP code you live in. That can help serve as a starting point to compare costs with various hospitals or doctors' practices around the world.

There's no way to know how much you can save until you do the research. Kristine Thorndyke, an American expat living in Shanghai who teaches English at an international school and is the founder of Test Prep Nerds, an informational website for test prep resources such as the MCAT and ACT, has become something of a medical tourism expert. While her primary physician is based in Lafayette, Indiana, she has received routine medical care in Shanghai and had two cavities filled in Medellín, Colombia. To get her cavities filled, "the cost was close to $150 out of pocket," Thorndyke says. She also says that the dentist was far more high-tech than anything she has seen in the states.

"During a standard cleaning, which was less than $50, they put this head massager on your head, which played soft music and would massage your head and face while they would clean your teeth," she says. "I was really impressed by how nice these clinics were compared to what I was used to with clinics at home (in Indiana)," Thorndyke says.

Look for companies that specialize in medical tourism

To start your search, consider looking at the hospitals and health care providers listed on MedicalTourismAssociation.com. There are a variety of venerable companies specializing in medical tourism, including AMTA Health, a medical tourism facilitator headquartered in Allentown, Pennsylvania, with offices in Lima, Peru. They specialize in hair transplants and dental work. Aionia Medical Travel, meanwhile, matches people up who are interested in cosmetic surgery, dentistry, stem cell therapy and anti-aging therapies in Australia.

Find reputable hospitals

"Some doctors seem to frown on other country's regulations or standards, but I believe this feeling is out of fear. The key is to find reputable, international hospitals or public hospitals with an international wing. They tend to cater to foreign clients and staff can speak English," Thorndyke says.

A good place to start when it comes to finding reputable doctors abroad is to ensure they've been accredited with an organization such as Joint Commission International and the International Society for Quality in Health Care. They feature lists of standards that facilities are required to meet to be accredited.

Keep your doctor apprised of your plans

If you have a family doctor, he or she will want to be looped in, even if you're receiving care elsewhere. When she has gone to the doctor, Thorndyke says that she always has any lab results or important information emailed to her primary care doctor's practice in Indiana to keep them up to date on her health.

"They seem to appreciate the updates, and this helps to keep my file consistent," Thorndyke says. You also may want to talk to your health insurer. They may pay for your health care procedure regardless of the country you're going to, provided it isn't cosmetic. For instance, last year, PEHP Health & Benefits, which covers 160,000 Utah public employees and their families, announced that it will pay members to travel to Tijuana, Mexico, to fill prescriptions for certain expensive drugs.

Understand how the procedure is performed abroad

Annalisa Nash Fernandez, an international cultural strategist who owns the cross-cultural communication consulting firm Because Culture, based in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, points out that the country's culture often dictates what your experience getting a procedure will be like. "Culture pervades even the smallest element involved in medical procedures," Fernandez says. She says that in Brazil, if you go to a lab for blood tests, it "is like a spa experience complete with tranquility gardens and post-fasting snacks included. Medical tourism does not isolate the procedure from the local culture. It's a complete experience, for better or for worse."

Factor in the pros, cons and caveats

A major upside and incentive for getting treatment abroad is the opportunity to reduce medical costs. According to the Medical Tourism Association, the cost-savings can be up to 90%. However, it depends on the procedure being performed, and the country where it's being done. Plus, you'll need to factor in travel and accommodation costs. You may find that what you want done isn't cheaper at an accredited foreign facility. On the other hand, you may relish the opportunity to visit a new country before or after receiving treatment.

Another important consideration is the cost of possible follow-up visits. If something goes wrong, and you need to arrange an additional follow-up appointment, your travel expenses could get exorbitant, so make sure to consider every possible scenario to make the best decision for you. You'll also want to discuss and plan for how to care for yourself after your treatment. For instance, flying after surgery may increase the risk of a blood clot. So, make sure to discuss any potential risks or special considerations with your primary health care provider before engaging in medical tourism.

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