This article is based on excerpts from the second edition of Patients Beyond Borders (2008), the flagship of a landmark series of consumer guides to international medical travel that have helped thousands of patients plan successful health journeys abroad. Healthy Travel Media, publisher of the guides, has become a global clearinghouse for useful information about medical and wellness travel.
The new phenomenon of medical tourism—or international health travel—has received a good deal of wide-eyed attention of late. While one newspaper or blog giddily touts the fun 'n sun side of treatment abroad, another issues dire Code Blue warnings about filthy hospitals, shady treatment practices, and procedures gone bad. As with most things in life, the truth lies somewhere in between.
In short, I've found the term "medical tourism" is something of a misnomer, often leading patients to emphasize the recreational more than the procedural in their quest for medical care abroad. Unlike much of the hype that surrounds contemporary health travel, Patients Beyond Borders focuses more on your health than on your travel preferences. Thus, throughout this book, you won't see many references to the terms "medical tourism" or "health tourism." In the same way business travelers don't normally consider themselves tourists, you'll begin to think more in terms of medical travel and health travel.
My research, including countless interviews, has convinced me: With diligence, perseverance, and good information, patients considering traveling abroad for treatment do indeed have legitimate, safe choices, not to mention an opportunity to save thousands of dollars over the same treatment in the United States. Hundreds of patients who have returned from successful treatment overseas provide overwhelmingly positive feedback. They persuaded me to write this impartial, scrutinizing guide to becoming an informed international patient. I designed this book to help readers reach their own conclusions about whether and when to seek treatment abroad.
So, why go abroad for medical care? Here are seven reasons.
1. Cost savings. Most people like to get the most for their dollar. The single biggest reason Americans travel to other countries for medical treatment is the opportunity to save money. Depending upon the country and type of treatment, uninsured and underinsured patients, as well as those seeking elective care, can realize 15 to 85 percent savings over the cost of treatment in the United States. Or, as one successful health traveler put it, "I took out my credit card instead of a second mortgage on my home." As baby boomers become senior boomers, costs of healthcare and prescriptions are devouring nearly 30 percent of retirement and preretirement incomes. With the word getting out about top-quality treatments at deep discounts overseas, informed patients are finding creative alternatives abroad. The costs listed in this table are for surgery (except as noted), including the hospital stay in a private, single-bed room. Airfare and lodging costs are governed by individual preferences. To compute a ballpark estimate of total costs, add $5,000 to the amounts shown in the table for you and a companion, figuring coach airfare and hotel rooms averaging $150 per night. For example, a hip replacement in Bangkok, Thailand, would cost about $18,000, for an estimated savings of at least $15,000 compared with the U.S. price. The estimates above are for treatments alone. Airfare, hospital stay (if any), and lodging vary considerably. Savings on dentistry become more dramatic when "big mouth-work" is required, involving several teeth or full restorations. Savings of $15,000 or more are common.
2. Better-quality care. Veteran health travelers know that facilities, instrumentation, and customer service in treatment centers abroad often equal or exceed those found in the United States. Governments of countries such as India and Thailand have poured billions of dollars into improving their healthcare systems, which are now aggressively catering to the international health traveler. VIP waiting lounges, deluxe hospital suites, and staffed recuperation resorts are common amenities, along with free transportation to and from airports, low-cost meal plans for companions, and discounted hotels affiliated with the hospital. Moreover, physicians and staff in treatment centers abroad are often far more accessible than their U.S. counterparts. "My surgeon gave me his cellphone number, and I spoke directly with him at least a dozen times during my stay," said David P., who traveled to Bangkok for a heart valve replacement.