Americans are clearly frustrated with the U.S. healthcare system. In an effort to get the medical procedures they want at reduced prices, many are traveling to foreign countries. Where are they going, and what kind of procedures are they getting? How much money are they actually saving and most importantly, what are the risks?

Medical Tourism
The estimates for the number of Americans traveling abroad to have medical procedures range between 70,000 to 500,000 depending on how you interpret medical travel. Some simply have acupuncture while on vacation; others specifically travel to receive a kidney transplant. Most patients travel outside the U.S. because the medical procedures are cheaper in other countries. Some may be uninsured or the procedure they want is not covered by their health insurance.

A new $40 million industry has evolved called medical tourism. The world of medical tourism is highly sophisticated with its own conferences, accreditations and marketing channels. International insurers are learning how to include coverage for those who are self-insured and tourism organizations are marketing directly to employers to influence their inclusion in health plans. Medical facilities around the world are forming partnerships.

The Medial Tourism Association provides a forum for doctors and medical facilities to market their services to international audiences while allowing prospective patients to receive objective information. One look at the comparison prices on their website may be enough to convince even more Americans that there are cheaper alternatives overseas.

For example, a heart bypass surgery costs about $144,000 in the U.S., but only $13,500 in Singapore. Of course, you would have to add the price of travel and lodging, but likely that wouldn't add up to more than $100,000. Receiving countries tout their low cost of medical care in general along with low or non-existent medical malpractice insurance. (Medical discount plans can help the uninsured or underinsured afford better healthcare. Learn how in Get Sale Prices On Healthcare With Discount Plans.)

America Beyond Borders
Foreign patients have long been drawn to prominent U.S. medical facilities when the wait times in their own countries are long. Johns Hopkins and other hospitals are also expanding their services to foreign markets through remote evaluations.

Some medical procedures performed in the United States have foreign connections. American healthcare facilities routinely outsource services such as reading radiology images and colonoscopies, and analyzing pathology specimens.

Administrative services are also outsourced. For example, the American Medical Association reports that as of 2008 India has captured 2% of the U.S. healthcare market in outsourced medical transcriptions and billing. Digital technology and lower labor costs make performing these services offshore cheaper to American patients.

Procedures that Americans travel overseas to receive that are commonly performed in the U.S. include: knee and shoulder surgery, fertility treatments, hernia repair, cosmetic surgery, eye surgery and dental procedures. Alternative medicine accounts for a smaller portion of U.S. medical tourism. (20 Ways To Save On Medical Bills has handy tips to cut the cost of hospital bills, co-pays, prescription drugs and more.)

Popular Medical Destinations

  1. Singapore
    Singapore has established medical tourism organizations connecting hospitals with recovery clinics and even sightseeing. Common specialties include: cosmetic surgery, dental procedures and alternative medicine. Heart bypass, face lifts and hip replacements are advertised for 33% to 76% of the cost in America.

  2. Malaysia
    Medical tourism has grown 25% since 1998. Mostly private hospitals offer cardiac surgery, plastic surgery, ophthalmology, orthopedics, fertility treatments and dental services.

  3. India
    India is known for cosmetic treatments from laser eye lifts to rhinoplasty (nose job) and face lifts. Dental implants are only $500 and breast implants cost $4,500 compared to $2,000 and $10,000 respectively in the United States. India also offers a full range of orthopedic and cardiac surgeries.

  4. Thailand
    Plastic surgery, dental services and pharmaceuticals attract patients to Thailand where Lasik eye surgery is $3,550 less than in the U.S. and lap band surgery is only $9,000.

  5. Costa Rica
    This is an emerging medical tourism destination with new offerings for drug addiction treatments and wellness spas in addition to plastic surgery and dental care. Bariatric surgery is one-third of the cost of procedures performed in the States. Root canals are only $350 vs. $800 in the U.S.

  6. Mexico
    Mexican facilities offer cancer treatments, fertility treatments, cosmetic surgery and gastric procedures. Gastric bypass is 60% less expensive than in America.

What are the Risks?
Many foreign doctors are actually trained in the United States, but questions about safety include the quality of the facilities and all staff. Patients are also susceptible to post surgery complications due to foreign climates and traveling too soon after a medical procedure. Patients should also consider their rights to malpractice remedies in foreign countries. (Before going on your trip, find out what kind of insurance coverage you will need in The Basics Of Travel Insurance.)

If you are considering medical treatment outside of your home country, make sure you do some research beforehand. Below are some valuable resources you might want to consult before booking your ticket.

  • Joint Commission International, an organization dedicated to improving the safety of healthcare, evaluates medical facilities around the world and certifies and accredits them. Patients seeking treatment in foreign countries should consult their website for a list of accredited hospitals.

  • The Center For Disease Control (CDC) produces the Yellow Book; CDC Health Information For International Travel 2010 offers an appendix dedicated to travel medicine.

  • The International Society of Medical Travel provides a list of travel clinics and their service:

  • The Medical Tourism Association offers a list of estimated patient prices for overseas medical procedures:

While the cost of American medicine continues to increase, other countries have built world class, highly-trained medical systems at a fraction of the cost. There are numerous global options for patients seeking the best healthcare at cheap prices.

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