Medical Tourism: Everybody's Guide to Affordable World-Class Medical Travel

At least 28 countries cater to international health travelers. Why it's a growing trend.

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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. Last year, more than 180,000 Americans packed their bags and headed overseas for nearly every imaginable type of medical treatment: tummy tucks in Brazil, heart valve replacements in Thailand, hip resurfacing surgeries in India, addiction recovery in Antigua, fertility diagnosis and treatments in South Africa, thalassotherapy in Hungary, or restorative dentistry in Mexico.

Currently, at least 28 countries on four continents cater to the international health traveler, with more than 2 million patients visiting hospitals and clinics each year in countries other than their own. The roster of treatments is as varied as the travelers. If the notion of complex medical procedures in far-flung lands seems intimidating to you, don't feel alone. That's why I wrote the book Patients Beyond Borders, drawing from the varied experiences of hundreds of patients who, for dozens of reasons, have beaten a well-worn path to successful treatments abroad.

It all started when my father, who was 72 at the time, announced he was heading off to Mexico for extensive dental work. I well remember my first reaction upon hearing his plans: a mixture of bewilderment and fear, then resignation, knowing that despite my protestations, he was going anyway. In spite of my concerns—some of them quite real—I'm pleased to report a happy ending. Dad and his wife, Alinda, selected a U.S.-trained dentist in Puerto Vallarta and spent around $11,000—which included two weeks noodling around the Pacific Coast. They returned tanned and smiling, Dad with new pearly whites and Alinda with an impromptu skin resurfacing. The same procedures would have cost them $24,000 in the United States.

After his treatment, when I told the story of my father's trip, most friends responded with the same shock and disbelief that I had felt initially. Then, when I explained the quality of care and the savings, more often than not, those same folks followed me out the door, asking for Dad's E-mail address. I even had an airport customs agent abandon his post and follow me to the boarding gate, seeking additional information for his son, who he had just learned required heart surgery.

Not long afterward, I developed an infected root canal and found myself following my father's example. My research led me abroad for extraction and implant work. While pleasantly surprised at the quality of care, the prices, and the all-around-good experience of the trip, I nonetheless made a number of mistakes and created unnecessary difficulties and discomforts for myself. Had I done some simple things differently, my trip would have been more successful and more economical.

In seeking additional data on medical travel, I found no reliable source of information. Everybody had something to sell or a political ax to grind. Books, magazine articles, and newspaper reports seemed more like tourists' brochures than health travel references. Thus the idea for Patients Beyond Borders was born: a well-researched guide, written in plain English, that would offer an impartial look at contemporary medical travel while helping prospective patients ask the right questions and make informed choices.

As we contemplate our options in an overpriced, overburdened U.S. healthcare environment, nearly all of us will eventually find ourselves seeking alternatives to costly treatments—either for ourselves or for our loved ones. Americans are in the midst of a global shift in healthcare service: In a few short years, big government investment, corporate partnerships, and increased media attention have spawned a new industry—medical tourism—bringing with it a host of encouraging new choices, ranging from dental care and cosmetic surgery to some of the more costly procedures, such as hip replacement and heart surgery. Those patients who take the time to become informed about our changing healthcare world will be pleasantly surprised by a smorgasbord of affordable, high-quality, American-accredited medical options abroad. Those who do not may find themselves grappling with an ungainly, prohibitively expensive healthcare system and a rising absence of choice.