Truths and Myths About Medical Tourism
If you are willing to travel to a foreign country for health care, you are a candidate for medical tourism, also called health tourism. Available overseas medical care ranges from simple dental care such as filling a tooth to complex surgical procedures such as hip replacement and heart surgery.
If you are thinking about medical tourism you are not alone. In 2008, about 560,000 U.S. residents alone traveled abroad for medical care, according to Deloitte Consulting.
But before you consider foreign medical care, you need to take into account what is generally true and what the myths are about this growing trend.
Medical treatments are less expensive outside the U.S. TRUE.
Depending on the medical procedure and foreign country, savings can range from 10% to 90%. The table below provides just a few samples:
Cost in U.S. $
Cost in U.S. $
Bone Marrow Transplant
Varicose Vein Surgery
Average of 3 lowest
Why the lower costs? First, because the cost of living is usually less in these countries, medical facilities and medical professionals can charge less. Also, medical malpractice insurance is less along with the typical administrative fees insurance companies charge hospitals.
There are no other costs associated with medical tourism. MYTH
Airfare to a foreign country is in addition to the cost of the procedure. Some medical travel brokers, also called health travel agencies, will quote you a cost that includes airfare, but there may be other travel-related expenses.
For example, there may be fees for passports and/or travel visas. Suppose you have to extend your stay for recovery. Are there flight-delay charges? What about travel costs for taxis or buses to and from the airport?
Additionally, it’s likely you’ll be bringing someone with you for your medical travel. Add in the costs for their hotel, meals, and daily travel to your bedside. What’s more, many procedures require that you stick around to recover. Are there additional daily charges for an extended hospital stay?
Finally, inquire about medical supplies and equipment costs. Will medications be extra? Will you need to rent a wheelchair? Oxygen tank?
You can receive high quality healthcare abroad. TRUE
There are two considerations here: the medical facility and the medical staff.
Companies that sell medical equipment, sell it around the world. Therefore, the medical treatment centers in foreign countries often have state-of-the-art facilities with the latest medical equipment.
You can also check the accreditation of hospitals worldwide. The primary organization that does this is the Joint Commission International (JCI). The JCI reviews hospitals and clinics worldwide based on a set of safety standards.
An international organization that provides hospital accreditation is The International Society for Quality in Health Care.
Also be aware that some foreign hospitals are affiliated with well-known U.S. health care providers such as the Cleveland Clinic and Johns Hopkins International.
Many foreign hospitals have doctors who have been trained in the U.S., Europe, Canada or Australia and have worked in medical facilities in those areas.
Learn about the specific doctor doing your procedure. Ask the medical facility for the name of the doctor who will be doing your procedure and what his or her credentials are. Have the facility email you the doctor’s biography and credentials. It would be worth speaking directly to the doctor to evaluate his or her English-speaking skills.
Also, many doctors are board-certified in their particular specialty. Some places to check specialty board certifications include:
- American Board of Surgery
- American Board Certified General Surgeon
- The American Board of Medical Specialists
- American Board of Plastic Surgery
Remember that surgery is typically done by a team. Look into the history of the medical team as well, including anesthesiologists, surgical assistants, and nursing staff.
Continue your research by reading online forums where people discuss their medical tourism experiences. Two sites that have such forums are:
If there’s a problem I can always sue. MYTH
If you have a surgical complication (or, God forbid, death), your country’s court system will probably not be able to help you. I’m not a lawyer, but I doubt your legal system would even help if you were to try and sue the medical travel broker, because the broker was not the actual provider of medical services.
You could try suing in the foreign country in which the procedure took place. In most cases, however, medical liability is not as strict as in the U.S. What’s more, medical malpractice awards are not as high as in the U.S.
When arranging medical travel ask if the medical facility offers some sort of insurance coverage if a complication occurs. Also, there are international insurance companies that offer medical malpractice insurance if you are going to use an accredited medical facility.
One of the great benefits of medical tourism is taking the time to be a tourist. MYTH
Many healthcare travel websites talk about combining travel and taking care of your medical needs. But the “tourism” part of the term “medical tourism” is really a misnomer.
If you are having a simple dental procedure such as a new crown, you may be able to hop out of the dental chair and spend some time at the local beach. But if you are having any sort of surgical procedure, it is unlikely that you will be jumping up out of your hospital bed and clubbing the night away.
Surgery is serious business and post-operative care and recovery is critical to a successful outcome. Traveling and/or partying too soon after surgery can result in dangerous complications including infections and blood clots.
When arranging your overseas medical procedures be sure to find out how long your post-surgery recovery will be, and where it will take place. You don’t want to be boarding a plane home too quickly after major surgery.
Having a medical procedure done overseas can provide a high-quality, low cost alternative to doing that same procedure locally. But keep these myths and truths in mind as you do your research.
For more information about medical tourism, see my other Hub page, 5 Step Guide to Medical Tourism.