Medical tourism – outsourcing health care?

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In an age when more and more aspects of our lives are being outsourced overseas, I guess it’s not so surprising that health care has been added to the list.

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In an age when more and more aspects of our lives are being outsourced overseas, I guess it’s not so surprising that health care has been added to the list.

Last year an estimated 500,000 Americans traveled beyond U.S. borders to receive medical treatment for procedures as diverse as knee replacement, heart bypass surgery, face-lifts, reconstructive dentistry and in vitro fertilization. While the government, insurance companies and hospitals grapple over the best way to fix our ailing health care system, the uninsured and underinsured are looking elsewhere for options.

Medical tourism is one of the fastest growing segments of the travel industry, yet it’s not exactly a new concept. A century ago wealthy Europeans suffering from tuberculosis traveled abroad to seek treatment at sanatoriums in more agreeable climates. These days factors such as affordable international airfare, improved standards of medical care in the developing world and greater price transparency have all combined to make global health care an increasingly viable alternative.

Josef Woodman, the author of a travel guidebook called “Patients Beyond Borders,” gives several key reasons why more patients are choosing to go abroad to meet their medical needs.

Cost: For Americans, the biggest motivation is to save money, plain and simple. Woodman recommends the “$6,000 rule.” If a procedure costs more than $6,000 here at home, chances are you would benefit from seeking options overseas, even after factoring in travel expenses.

Quality: While health care costs in this country continue to soar, our overcrowded and understaffed hospitals struggle to keep up with demand. The Joint Commission, an American nonprofit that accredits health care facilities both here and abroad, already has certified over 250 international facilities in 36 countries. Many of these hospitals offer luxurious amenities such as private suites, VIP lounges and recuperation resorts at a fraction of what you’d pay at home.

Options: Dental, infertility, cosmetic and orthopedic procedures are often not covered by medical insurance, forcing a growing number of patients to look abroad for affordable alternatives. In addition, specialty procedures such as hip polishing, bariatric weight loss surgery and certain stem-cell treatments are much more common and, in some cases, only available overseas.

Delays: Even in countries with universal health care like England and Canada, the wait for nonurgent procedures can take months. Many patients would rather go overseas and pay out-of-pocket than endure the chronic pain and tedious anticipation.

International travel, whether it’s a backpacking tour through Europe, a business trip to Japan, a relaxing stay at a Caribbean resort or a hip-replacement operation in India, ultimately is a chance for us to connect with the rest of the world and increase our understanding of it. The continued growth of medical tourism will provide an opportunity for thousands of nontravelers to expand their horizons and get a taste of life beyond our 50 states.

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About the author


Editor in chief is Linda Hohnholz.