The Surprising Way to Save on Your Next Medical Procedure

Americans seek health care in other countries for numerous reasons. Some are immigrants who prefer providers from a similar culture. Others might want a procedure that is not available in the U.S.

However, the biggest factor motivating them is cost.

In the U.S. we have the most expensive health care system in the world. It’s not difficult to find countries that offer procedures at 30%-65% of the cost in the U.S.

For example a knee replacement that would run $35,000 to $60,000 in the U.S. costs less than $23,000 in Costa Rica or India, including airfare and lodging for the patient and a companion.

Facilities offshore can charge less because of lower pay to doctors and other health care workers. Plus there’s less overhead since patients pay cash, and providers may not have to carry the same level of malpractice insurance as here in the states.

Common procedures include orthopedic surgery, cosmetic surgery, cardiac surgery, oncologic care, and dentistry.

So it’s no surprise that medical tourism is booming. Patients are combining medical procedures while vacationing abroad.

In 2017, more than 1.4 million Americans sought health care in a variety of countries, up from 750,000 in 2007. The number is expected to increase by 25% per year.

The Amount of Money Involved is Impressive…

Worldwide, patients spend $3,800-$6,000 per visit. And the total value of the entire medical tourist business per year is around $439 billion, which has made it one of the fastest growing markets in the healthcare sector.

Countries around the world are tapping into this niche…

For instance, nearly 1 million people went to Turkey in 2018 for health tourism.

Mummy makeovers have become popular in Thailand. Beginning at $10,000 new moms can undergo extensive procedures, such as breast lifts and laser peels, to regain their pre-baby appearance.

And companies offering vacation packages that include cosmetic surgery and dental procedures are popping up like mushrooms. The offers generally include private hospital services, “highly trained” and “credentialed” medical staff, and recovery time in an exotic setting.

The top destinations are Thailand, Mexico, Singapore, India, Malaysia, Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, and Costa Rica.

And they offer everything from “safari and surgery” to “tropical, scenic tour” vacation packages.

You’ll likely have to pay for your care at the time of service and use a private company or medical concierge to identify foreign health care facilities.

Unfortunately, these companies might not require accreditation of foreign providers, track patient results, or maintain medical record security policies.

The Risks

The quality of care in hospitals and clinics outside the U.S. is the primary concern. And there are no U.S. laws that will protect you or require medical personnel have specific training or qualifications. 

Countries differ in their standards for infection control and safety. Using fresh gloves, sterile instruments, and safe water are not always the norm. Without these precautions, you could be infected with hard-to-treat bacteria not commonly seen in the U.S.

For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that some U.S. residents who had weight-loss surgery in Tijuana, Mexico, were diagnosed with infections caused by an antibiotic-resistant form of Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria.

And the CDC issued warnings about procedures in the Dominican Republic. That was after dozens of women reported coming down with potentially fatal infections post-surgery.

There are other issues too, such as:

  • Language barriers can increase the chance that misunderstanding will arise about your care 
  • Culture shock
  • Counterfeit medications or blood that hasn’t been properly screened
  • Long flights after surgery can increase the chance of blood clots
  • If there’s a problem after you return home, who will treat you? 

Precautions You Can Take

To reduce the chances of something going wrong: 

  • Consult with a travel medicine specialist in the U.S. at least a month before your trip.
  • Ask your doctor if you are healthy enough to travel abroad for the procedure.
  • Request a written agreement from the facility or group arranging the trip, defining the treatments, supplies, care that’s covered.
  • Arrange follow-up care with your local doctor before you leave.
  • Take a list of all the meds you use, including their brand and generic names, manufacturers, and dosages.
  • Before combining vacation activities with your trip, see if those activities are allowable after surgery.
  • Plan on staying in the area where the surgery was done for at least one week. Traveling too soon increases the risk of pulmonary embolism and blood clots.
  • Keep all outer packaging and package inserts from meds you receive or purchase abroad. They could be useful if you have complications.
  • Maintain records of all care you received overseas. And don’t be reluctant to share that information with your primary care provider.
  • Avoid black market private clinics, which are often operated by non-physicians who have little or no medical training.

Although there are many skilled and qualified physicians practicing all over the world, it may be difficult to access their training and credentials outside of the U.S.

Yet there are sources you should check.

For instance, are the facilities internationally accredited?

Joint Commission International, DNV International Accreditation for Hospitals, and the International Society for Quality in Health Care have lists of standards that members must meet.

Also, the American Board of Medical Specialties, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, and the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery all accredit overseas physicians.

The decision to visit another country for medical care should go beyond simply comparing prices…

Do your homework. Research the procedure, the benefits, and the risks. Understand potential side effects and recovery time.

Finally… be informed. Use social media to find others who have had similar procedures done by the same provider so you have a better idea on what to expect.

To a richer life,

Nilus Mattive

— Nilus Mattive
Editor, The Rich Life Roadmap

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