Medical tourism (traveling to another country for medical treatment) is not a new concept. Wealthy individuals from less developed countries routinely travel to the United States for the best medical care. In fact, as Forbes Magazine reports, rulers of Arab nations have bestowed hundreds of millions of dollars as thank you gifts to fund research at US hospitals where they received treatment.
The reverse trend, however, is relatively new. US citizens are choosing to travel abroad for medical treatment they simply cannot afford at home. The cost of healthcare in the United States has ballooned. A 20-year-old man made headlines in 2012 when he received a bill for $55,000 after having his appendix removed at a Sacramento hospital.
An estimated 750,000 US citizens seek medical care overseas each year. Americans are flying thousands of miles for everything for heart surgery, hip replacement, and to childbirth by surrogacy. If you are planning to fly overseas for medical treatment, read the CDC’s safety guidelines before you go.
Why is medical tourism gaining popularity?
- Cost: Coronary bypass surgery can cost less than $1,600 in India. If you undergo the same procedure at a top flight hospital, it will set you back by more than $100,000. Price benefits extend across the board. A liver transplant costs $70,000 overseas versus $300,000 in the US. A shot of Botox is $8 instead of $70. Closer to home, cosmetic surgery in Mexico is available at a fraction of the cost.
- Speed: Prolonged waiting times are common in countries with public healthcare systems such as Canada. Non-urgent medical procedures have especially long wait periods. Medical tourism hotspots like India, Singapore, and Thailand offer immediate medical care.
- Skill: There is an acute shortage of physicians in the United States, estimated at more than 90,000. Yet, strict medical licensing laws do not make it easy for skilled foreign physicians to migrate and practice medicine here. Americans are increasingly traveling abroad to seek the services of these qualified doctors.
- Technology: Hospitals that cater to American patients are furnished with state-of-the-art equipment and cutting-edge technology to provide sophisticated medical services that are comparable to developed countries.
- Convenience: Overseas hospitals offer customized services to international patients including visa assistance, airport pickup, stay during recuperation, and sightseeing following recovery (a chance to see the Taj Mahal!).
- Circumvention: Some people travel abroad to gain access to experimental treatments that do not have FDA approval in the United States (e.g., assisted suicide, stem cell therapy). The sale of human organs is illegally offered in some countries.
Understanding the Implications of Medical Treatment Abroad
- Long-distance travel (sometimes requiring 16-hour flights) increases the risk of blood clots due to immobility.
- Americans do not have the natural immunity to combat infectious diseases indigenous to the host country (for example, gastrointestinal diseases, TB, and malaria).
- Blood is often obtained from paid donors in third world countries without adequate screening for HIV and other blood-borne diseases.
- The quality of post-operative care may vary dramatically from American standards.
- Counterfeit and poor-quality medications may be a problem in developing countries.
- Complications may force a longer stay than anticipated.
- Post-treatment vacation activities may not be safe.
- Communicating with healthcare workers who speak a different language increases the chances of a misunderstanding.
- Informed consent may be ambiguous or based on incomplete information.
- It is almost always impossible to verify any claims of success rates and quality of care.
- Standards of medical ethics vary in different countries, especially with regard to organ transplantation.
- It is difficult to seek damages or pursue a malpractice lawsuit for substandard treatment due to multinational jurisdictions and lack of clarity on which law should apply.
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