Maybe it's happened to you: you need an expensive medical procedure, but you don't have the healthcare coverage to pay for it. Whether it's heart surgery with the price tag of a house, dental work or plastic surgery, medical care is very expensive in the United States. So what about countries like Belgium, Mexico and India, where you can get surgery at a fraction of the cost? It's called medical tourism, but is it safe? Here are the pros and cons, and what you should consider before going abroad to get surgery.

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Pros

  1. Savings
    The number one benefit is obviously significant savings. Take open heart surgery: in the U.S., you'll pay upwards of $324,000, where in India, the surgery will cost you only $8,000. Extensive cosmetic dental work can set you back $8,000 in the States; in India, you'll pay just $1,000.

  2. No Wait
    Where many procedures have waiting lists of a year or more, there's little or no wait for medical care in many countries outside the U.S. For patients who are suffering (or worse, at death's door), waiting can be excruciating, costing them time away from work and decreasing their quality of life.

  3. Less Hassle
    Paperwork, insurance claims and other administrative hassles can be a full-time job when you're awaiting a procedure. If you're very sick or simply lead a busy life, this red tape can take its toll. Since you're paying for the procedure, the hassle-factor is very low with surgeries outside the country. There may be some travel documentation required, depending on the country. (Learn more in Fighting The High Costs Of Healthcare and Steering Clear Of Medical Debt.)

  4. Getting Away
    Although medical care is the primary purpose of medical tourism, many procedures are sold as packages, which function like a getaway. If you bring a spouse along, that dental work can be a little vacation - once the procedure is over, of course.

Cons

  1. Safety
    Who is really performing that operation? Is Mexico, Brazil, or India such a safe country to visit, let alone a place where you should get risky surgery? Although India, for example, is considered an impoverished country, education for doctors is some of the best in the world. Many foreign doctors are trained in the U.K. or in the U.S. Do your homework on your chosen hospital and physician. The Joint Commission is an accrediting agency of foreign healthcare providers, and would be a good place to start in your research. Find out everything you can, and talk to your physician at home about your plans.

  2. No Recourse
    That hefty price tag in the U.S. stems partly from the high cost of liability coverage, something you're not paying for in Bangkok or Malaysia. But that also means that if something goes wrong, you have little or no recourse. With risky procedures like heart surgery, you may lose your life over those dollars saved. Again, make sure you do your research on the facility you're entrusting with your life, and understand you are taking a risk. (Learn more about saving for your American healthcare bills, read 20 Ways To Save On Medical Bills.)

  3. Travel
    Although that trip to Mexico may be just the thing to get you out of the snowy Midwest, traveling after surgery also poses its share of risk. Part of those high bills here in the United States comes from a lengthy hospital stay to make sure you don't go home until you're ready. As well as researching the facility you intend to use, find out about your procedure, recovery time and possible complications. You have to be a smart consumer; don't be afraid to ask questions when talking to the hospital or physician. Find out about travel and immunization requirements you may have to comply with. (For more on getting ready to travel, check out The Basics Of Travel Insurance.)

  4. Other Health Risks
    What if something goes wrong when you get home? That doctor in India won't be close enough to help you, so you'll be making a trip to your American doctor, or worse, the emergency room. Consider the cost of complications during your recovery once you're home.

  5. Ethical Questions
    Some countries, particularly impoverished ones, offer organ transplants with little to no wait list. Ask yourself, how this is possible? Where do those organs come from? Did they just buy that kidney from a poor man trying to feed his family, or worse? Be prepared to ask your prospective healthcare provider difficult questions, and ask yourself those questions too. Make sure you are not compromising your ethics or breaking the law. (Learn 10 Ways The New Healthcare Bill May Affect You.)

The Bottom Line
Medical tourism may well be the answer if you lack the healthcare coverage to pay the high U.S. medical bill. Just do your homework before booking that trip. Remember that for these foreign healthcare providers, this is a business, but to you, this is your body and your life. Be a very cautious consumer.

Still feeling uninformed? Check out last week's business news highlights in Water Cooler Finance: Zombies File Taxes, Dead Bills Rise Again.

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