Considering Medical Tourism? Here’s What You Should Know

Medical team performing surgery.

Medical tourism is on the rise as more and more Americans are finding that they can get the medical procedures they need at a fraction of the cost charged by U.S. hospitals. A non-elective surgery, like a hip replacement, can be had abroad for around $13,000 — compared to the $100,000 or more than the procedure might cost in an American hospital. Many patients who’ve taken advantage of lower medical costs abroad find that the quality is comparable to that found in good American hospitals.

Rising health care costs at home have driven more and more Americans abroad in search of care. In fact, by some estimates, as many as 500,000 Americans travel abroad each year to have surgical procedures ranging from Botox and dentistry to heart surgery, joint replacement and spinal repair. If you’re considering medical tourism, here’s what you should know.

You May Lack Support If Something Goes Wrong

If you receive surgery or other medical care in a hospital abroad and something goes wrong, it can be hard to hold that hospital accountable. The boom in medical tourism is very new, and no one is quite sure yet who you might sue if a hospital botches your procedure. What is certain is that hospitals abroad aren’t subject to the same regulations and oversight as hospitals in the U.S.

What’s more, if you need postoperative care after you return home, you may not be able to get it. The burden of making your medical journey successful will fall squarely on you, and it can be hard to get the data you need to make an educated decision about whether or not to receive care at a foreign hospital.

Remember, these hospitals aren’t being monitored by the state and federal agencies that protect health care consumers domestically. They may refuse to answer your questions about success rates, mortality rates, or a particular doctor’s credentials and surgical statistics. Or, they may give you false information.

If you do choose to receive care at a hospital abroad, choose one that’s accredited by the Joint Commission International. This is the global branch of the agency that oversees U.S. hospital standards. While this accreditation doesn’t guarantee you’ll receive quality care, it does serve as evidence that the hospital operates according to safety standards similar to those used in U.S. hospitals, and that your physician will be properly credentialed.

Blood Supplies in Foreign Hospitals May Not Be Safe

Many people travel to developing countries for cheaper medical procedures, but there’s no guarantee that the blood supplies in those hospitals will be safe. You can and definitely should ask questions about where their donated blood comes from, how it’s screened and who makes the safety calls. But remember, they don’t have to answer your questions and you have no way of verifying their answers.

Hospitals abroad, especially in developing countries, may use low-tech means of keeping track of which blood gets to which patient. This can facilitate mix-ups, in which patients get the wrong blood. Look for a facility that uses a computerized barcode system to keep track of blood.

You May Not Need to Travel Abroad to Get Good Prices on Medical Care

American hospitals are aware of the medical tourism trend, and they’re aware that today’s savvy patients shop around for the best price on necessary as well as cosmetic procedures. As the baby boomer generation rapidly ages, the already-high demand for surgical procedures will continue to skyrocket. A number of American hospitals have responded to market forces by bringing prices in line with what hospitals in Asia, Indonesia and Europe charge.

Canadian company North American Surgery works to put American patients in touch with hospitals in New York, Oklahoma, Michigan, Kansas and Washington that provide inexpensive surgeries. Bariatric surgery, for example, costs $10,000 to $15,000 at these facilities; a joint replacement or heart bypass is only $14,000.

Websites like MediBid exist to help patients shop for affordably-priced medical care. Through such sites, patients are able to get joint replacements for $19,000 in San Antonio or $14,450 in Glendale, CA. These prices are comparable to those charged by hospitals abroad. If you live in a major city, like New York City, you may be able to save significantly on medical care just by travelling to another part of the state.

Many Americans are responding to the rising cost of health care by travelling abroad to receive the care they wouldn’t be able to afford from an American hospital. Before you plan your medical journey, keep in mind that it’s now possible to get care at comparable prices without leaving the U.S., and you might be better off doing so.

About the Author: Contributing blogger Alison Avery holds a master’s in health care ethics and contributes to a number of top health care blogs. If you’re interested in a career in bioethics, Alison encourages you to seek more information on how you can earn a health care ethics degree online.


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