7 Reasons to Consider Traveling for Medical Care

Medical tourists have different reasons for traveling abroad for care. Here's why they do it.

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3. Excluded treatments. Even the most robust health insurance plans exclude a variety of conditions and treatments. You, the policyholder, must pay these expenses out of pocket. Although health insurance policies vary according to the underwriter and individual, your plan probably excludes a variety of treatments, such as cosmetic surgeries, dental care, vision treatments, reproductive/infertility procedures, certain nonemergency cardiovascular and orthopedic surgeries, weight loss programs, substance abuse rehabilitation, and prosthetics—to name only a few. In addition, many policies place restrictions on prescriptions (some quite expensive), postoperative care, congenital disorders, and pre-existing conditions. Rich or cash-challenged, young or not-so-young, heavily or only lightly insured, folks who get sick or desire a treatment (even one recommended by their physician) often find their insurance won't cover it. Confronting increasingly expensive choices at home, nearly 40 percent of American health travelers hit the road for elective treatments. In countries such as Costa Rica, Singapore, Dubai, and Thailand, this trend has spawned entire industries, offering excellent treatment and ancillary facilities at costs far lower than U.S. prices.

4. Specialty treatments. Some procedures and prescriptions are simply not allowed in this country. Either Congress or the Food and Drug Administration has specifically disallowed a certain treatment, or perhaps it's still in the testing and clinical trials stage or was only recently approved. Such treatments are often offered abroad. One example is an orthopedic procedure known as hip resurfacing, a less expensive alternative to the traditional hip replacement still practiced in the United States. While this procedure has been performed for more than a decade throughout Europe and Asia, it was only recently approved in the United States, and its availability here remains spotty. Hundreds of forward-thinking Americans, many having suffered years of chronic pain, have found relief in India, where hip resurfacing techniques, materials, and instrumentation have been perfected, and the procedure is routine.

5. Shorter waiting periods. For decades, thousands of Canadian and British subscribers to universal, "free" healthcare plans have endured waits as long as two years for established procedures. "Some of us die before we get to the operating table," commented one exasperated patient, who journeyed to India for an open-heart procedure. Here in the United States, long waits are a growing problem, particularly among war veterans covered under the Veterans Administration Act, for whom long queues are becoming far too common. Some patients figure it's better to pay out of pocket to get out of pain or to halt a deteriorating condition than to suffer the anxiety and frustration of waiting for a far-future appointment and other medical uncertainties.

6. More "inpatient friendly." As U.S. health insurance companies apply increasing pressure on hospitals to process patients as quickly as possible, outpatient procedures are becoming the norm. Similarly, U.S. hospitals are under huge pressure to move inpatients out of those costly beds as soon as possible. Medical travelers will welcome the flexibility at the best hospitals abroad, where they are often aggressively encouraged to spend extra time in the hospital post-procedure. Patient-to-staff ratios are usually lower abroad, as are hospital-borne infection rates.

7. The lure of the new and different. Although traveling abroad for medical care can be challenging, many patients welcome the chance to blaze a trail, and they find the creature comforts often offered abroad a welcome relief from the sterile, impersonal hospital environments so often encountered in U.S. treatment centers. For others, simply being in a new and interesting culture lends distraction to an otherwise worrisome, tedious process. And getting away from the myriad obligations of home and professional life can yield healthful effects at a stressful time. What's more, travel—and particularly international travel—can be a life-changing experience. You might be humbled by the limousine ride from Indira Gandhi International Airport to a hotel in central New Delhi or struck by the simple, elegant graciousness of professionals and ordinary people in Thailand, or wowed by the sheer beauty of the mountain range outside a dental office window in Mexico. As one veteran medical traveler put it, "I brought back far more from this trip than a new set of teeth."