Fly Where For Medical Care?

Written by on December 1, 2014 in Features - No comments

Medical Tourism is a Growing Industry

About 5 years ago, I had a patient travel to Venezuela for an abdominoplasty and a mastopexy. She had family that lived in Venezuela who helped her find a reputable plastic surgeon and provided her with accommodations after her surgery. When I asked her why she was traveling so far for her procedure she said it was because the surgery cost about 25 percent of what it would cost in the US.  Even with the expense of airfare, she said it was still cheaper. When I saw her after her procedure she said she had a great experience and was ecstatic with her results. I initially thought her traveling outside of the US for medical care was unique, but I have since discovered that she is one of many who are going to the effort of seeking medical care in other countries.

Medical tourism, which includes anyone traveling to another country to receive medical treatment, is a growing industry. Some predict that 11 million people will travel to another country for medical care in 2014, spending an estimated 38.5-55.5 billion US dollars. It is expected that 1.2 million of these travelers will be US citizens who spend between 3,500-5,000 US dollars per visit, including all medically-related costs.1

planeWEBSo what is driving this new industry? As costs for healthcare in the US and other countries continue to rise, many people are looking for more affordable options for healthcare. And it isn’t just individuals who are looking to save on healthcare spending, but also companies that provide self-funded healthcare plans. Some companies are starting to offer overseas medical care to their employees at no cost to the employees. Even when the companies pay for the procedure and all travel related expenses, they are still saving a significant amount of money. One such company paid for an employee to travel to Costa Rica for a knee replacement, which in the US would have cost $59,000 but in Costa Rica cost only $23,531.2 This particular company does not require the employee to pay any out-of pocket expenses and even shares 10% of the cost savings with the employee in the form of a bonus. The employees are happy with the arrangement since they have no out-of-pocket expenses and the companies are happy with their overall cost savings. Traveling for medical care can be a win for everyone.

Currently, the top 5 destinations for medical tourism are Thailand, Hungary, India, Singapore, and Malaysia. The US currently ranks 7th for the number of people traveling here for medical care but it is actively working to improve its rank.3 A recent article in the Washington Business Journal indicates that the US is working to increase the number of travelers to the US seeking health care, particularly to Washington DC. The District health department is planning to not only partner with local hospitals but also area hotels and restaurants to offer a full destination package.4 Las Vegas and Florida already offer medical travel packages, which has made them top medical destinations in the US for people from all over the world.

The types of procedures people are having done varies just as much as where they are going. Cosmetic surgery, dental procedures, and heart surgery top the list of medical procedures. However, people are also undergoing orthopedic procedures, cancer treatment, weight loss procedures, and invitro fertilization treatments. People also seek alternative treatments with therapies that may not be available or approved in their home countries. These therapies range from non-western treatments with acupuncture to experimental proton bean therapy to treat brain tumors. The procedures available to patients willing to travel are almost endless.

Medical tourism isn’t just for the cost-conscious consumer. There is a whole sector of the industry that targets people looking to combine luxury travel with medical services. You can travel to South Africa for your rhinoplasty and then go on a five-star African safari. Prince Court Medical Center in Kuala Lumpur offers invitro-fertilization in spacious junior suites. Bumrungrad International hospital in Bangkok offers access to over 200 US-certified surgeons at a facility that offers luxurious 5 star accommodations, a shopping mall, and a Starbucks. Even the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Seoul Korea now offers an anti-aging clinic and spa where you can have plastic surgery procedures while staying in one of their beautiful suites.

While the cost benefits and access to medical treatments is clear, is this really a safe alternative for medical care? The answer to that is it depends. Due to the global demand for medical procedures, the US-based Joint Commission launched an international affiliate in 1999 called the Joint Commission International (JCI). Since 1999, 693 hospitals and clinics worldwide have been accredited by JCI and the number is growing by about 20% per year.1 JCI offers a searchable website to help find accredited facilities in whichever region you are interested in traveling to for your treatment. There are also companies that are designed to help you find safe, reputable facilities for the treatments you are seeking. They will put together a complete package including all travel arrangements, any necessary visas, and all medical appointments that may be needed. So if you do your research correctly, there are safe, affordable global options available for medical care.

Since the globalization of most other markets has already occurred, it only makes sense that medicine is becoming more global as well. While medical tourism may have originally been for the more adventurous, this is no longer the case. Even organizations like AARP are beginning to offer their members advice on how to seek good quality medical care abroad. As costs for healthcare continue to rise, international medical care will become a viable sector of medical care for more and more people.

1. Patients beyond borders.  Published July 2014. Accessed November 9, 2014

 2. Stephano R. No kidding: Overseas medical tourism is well worth trip. Health Law Gurus. October 27, 2014.

 3. Das R. Medical tourism gets a facelift and perhaps a pacemaker. Forbes. August 19, 2014.

 4. Reed T. The White House. The Washington Monument. Surgery? D.C. officials plan to launch new medical tourism program. Washington Business Journal. Oct. 29, 2014

By Carrie A Noriega, MD


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