Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Rise of "Medical Tourism"

Here's an excellent article by Jon Herring on medical tourism.
It summarises the pros and cons of medical tourism extremely well, since it's based on his personal experience. I just wish they wouldn't call it "tourism". These are patients seeking medical care. When Indians went to Mayo Clinic in the past for their medical treatment, were they called tourists ?

My trip to Central America is just one example of what has become known as "medical tourism." For a variety of reasons, people from around the world are traveling to other countries to obtain dental, medical, and surgical treatment ... while also enjoying a vacation.

Because this is a relatively recent development, there are few reliable statistics regarding this niche industry. But in an article two years ago, India's BusinessWorld Magazine provided numbers suggesting that millions of travelers spend more than $40 billion a year on combined medical and travel expenses.

Four countries in Asia - Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and India - attract well over a million medical travelers each year, and these numbers are growing rapidly. In most cases, patients are traveling from the developed countries of the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Australia, and the Middle East to less-developed countries.

Why would someone travel for healthcare?

For two decades, the standards of healthcare have rapidly improved in a growing number of "third-world" countries that now offer world-class medical services that meet the high standards of the U.S. and Europe. These countries boast a variety of modern hospitals and state-of-the-art outpatient facilities with newer technology and better equipment than many of those in the states. In many cases, the doctors and specialists in these facilities were trained in the top medical and dental schools in the U.S.

When you consider the affordability of international travel, favorable exchange rates, and high-quality care at a fraction of the cost, it's easy to see why medical tourism is booming. But these are not the only reasons people are traveling for healthcare.

Surging demand for healthcare in the developed world is exposing the flaws in our system.

In Canada and the UK, for example, patients who wish to receive treatment under the government's socialized healthcare plan are required, in many cases, to wait several YEARS to receive the treatment they need TODAY. And the U.S. medical system is a massive paper-pushing bureaucracy, plagued by fraud, inefficiency, and waste. Combine this with outrageous malpractice insurance fees, and the cost of healthcare in this country has risen to the point of being ridiculous.

What about the service?

Doctors, dentists, and hospitals that cater to medical travelers actually have to meet a higher standard of service than those in our home country. That's because many of these facilities and practitioners get their business via word-of-mouth referrals. And unless you have a high-quality experience, you are unlikely to spread the word.

Options exist for full-service travel arrangements, private chefs, dedicated staff, and a number of tailor-made services. In addition, the staff goes out of its way to make you feel comfortable and right at home. And an appointment with a specialist, diagnostic testing, and follow-up can completed within hours. In the U.S., that would usually require several appointments and hours upon hours in waiting rooms.

All of these factors play a role. But the primary factor driving the growth of medical tourism is the cost savings. Procedures start at around 10% of the cost of the same procedures here in the states. In some cases, the cost might approach half of what you would pay here. But in almost all cases, a significant savings can be achieved, justifying not only the cost of travel, but also lodging, meals, and entertainment while in the host country.

Medical tourism began primarily with elective and cosmetic procedures that are not covered under insurance - and many people still travel for this reason. Today, though, growing numbers are traveling for life-saving and medically necessary procedures, such as joint replacements, cataract surgery, bone marrow transplants, and even bypass surgery.

To have a total hip replacement surgery in the United States would cost $40,000+. The same surgery in India or the Philippines would cost less than $8,000.

In the Unites States, heart surgery averages $50,000+. The same operation with comparable rates of success and complications costs only $10,000 in Bombay's top hospital.

A $250,000 bone marrow transplant can be obtained for around $25,000 in India.
India is emerging as the leader in the medical tourist industry, especially when it comes to complex surgical procedures. But throughout Southeast Asia, modern hospitals are springing up near tourist destinations to service this growing market.

Large numbers of people are also traveling to Central and South America, which offer high-quality, affordable healthcare and the chance to convalesce in the tropical air and healing sunlight.

What are the downsides?

You can get some of the best healthcare in the world here in the United States - and some of the worst. The same can be true in other countries as well. Under certain circumstances, there can be many advantages to traveling for healthcare. But there are some obvious downsides to consider. For example:

Your insurance policy may not cover treatment - and even if it does, you will probably have to pay first and wait for reimbursement.

All surgeries and medical procedures carry a certain level of risk, no matter where they are performed. The same risk of complications exists overseas as it does here.

There is little opportunity for follow-up care. So it might be a good idea to give yourself a few extra "cushion" days after your last appointment and before you plan to leave the country.

Part of the savings you achieve in a foreign country is because they are not strapped by the same malpractice litigation we see in the states. This could also mean that you have little legal recourse should something go wrong.

Remember the "tourism" angle to all of this. If you receive great medical care and get mugged while out shopping, it might not make for a great trip. As always, be careful while traveling.
I hope I've opened your eyes to the many possibilities that exist for elective and medically necessary healthcare and dental work that you might not have known about. This is a rapidly expanding aspect of modern healthcare, so you are sure to hear more and more about it.

As always, my best advice to you is to focus on “health care” so you don’t need “medical care”. But if you find yourself or a loved one in a position where a medical or dental procedure is needed, now you know that you have options.


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