Is medical tourism worth the cost savings?

If you need a hip replacement and your health insurance provider refuses to cover the cost, you’re looking at some hefty medical bills. At Catholic Medical Hospital in Manchester, N.H., the procedure can cost as much as $54,500 out of pocket. But if you’re willing to fly to Bumrungrad International Hospital in Thailand, you could have the treatment done for a fraction of the U.S. cost, paying just $12,000 to $14,000 for the procedure.

Medical tourism, as the trend of traveling abroad for cheaper care is known, is a quickly growing field. The Deloitte Center for Health Solutions found that about 750,000 Americans traveled overseas for medical care in 2007. The center estimates medical tourism is growing by 35 percent each year, with the number of American medical tourists set to surpass 20 million by 2016.

Who is traveling abroad for care?

For policyholders with low- or no-deductible health plans, there’s little incentive to go abroad for cheaper care, and few providers consider such coverage “in network.”

medical tourism

However, people whose health insurance plans refuse to pay for expensive procedures such as fertility treatments, hip replacements or cosmetic surgery; policyholders with high-deductible insurance plans; and the uninsured are all good candidates for medical tourism.

For instance, Barbara Schantz of Huntsville, Ala., traveled to Europe for Intra-Cytoplasmic Sperm Injection because her insurer refused to cover the fertility treatments. The treatments would have cost $15,000 apiece in the United States, but Schantz paid $3,000 for the treatment in Germany and $2,000 in Finland the following year.

“We now have two sets of twins, plus we got to enjoy the countries we visited, so the vacation was an added bonus,” Schantz says.

Many employers that self-insure are turning to medical tourism to trim expenses.

David Boucher, president of Companion Global Healthcare, a BlueCross BlueShield South Carolina subsidiary company that helps individuals and employers book international medical procedures, says that it’s typical for self-insured employers to have $100,000 deductibles on their company policies, so it’s in their interest to seek bargains for treatment. Maine-based supermarket chain Hannaford Bros. was one of the first businesses to take advantage of overseas opportunities in 2007, offering to send employees in need of hip or knee replacements to Singapore. As incentive, Hannaford waived participating employees’ deductibles and co-pays, and agreed to cover transportation costs for each patient and a companion. The unique offer inspired local hospitals to match the Singapore hospital’s cost savings, so patients were able to receive care at home for the same low price.

Certainly, medical tourism can help individuals and employers gain bargains on specialized medical services. However, there are a number of important considerations if you’re looking at medical treatment in another country.

Is the procedure suitable for medical tourism?

While a hip replacement is a good candidate for a medical tourism trip, an emergency appendectomy is not. Boucher says knee replacements, hip replacements, heart valve replacements and hernia repairs are ideal procedures for medical tourists, because “patients can travel long distances safely, hospitals do a lot of them, and the rehabilitation process is short with relatively few complications."

It’s also important to make sure you don’t have any other health conditions that might make the journey a problem. Boucher advises potential medical tourists to get MRIs and other scans done in the United States and have the results sent to the foreign hospital where a procedure is planned. That way, the treating physician can let you know whether you shouldn’t travel for the operation before you spend money on accommodations and airfare.

What happens if there are complications?

If complications do arise after a medical tourist has returned home, it’s generally not feasible to fly overseas for a corrective operation. Therefore, it's essential to discuss your plans with a local specialist in advance, so that he or she can manage your follow-up care.

Sometimes, that can get expensive. Dr. Robert Wilcox, a plastic surgeon in Plano, Texas, says he’s dealt with follow-up care for many patients who’ve run into trouble after seeking cheaper cosmetic procedures in Mexico and Costa Rica.

“I’ve seen patients come back with infections because standards and oversights aren’t the same as what’s available in the U.S.,” Wilcox says. “Sometimes they’ll end up with post-op bleeding and need to go to the ER. Their health insurance policies generally won’t cover the cost of those complications, so the patients are left footing the whole bill.”

Specialized medical tourism insurance policies, such as those sold by Global Protective Solutions, can alleviate the risk of complications and the damage they can do to your bank account. “For around $1,000, you can buy a $250,000 policy that can cover extra time in the hospital or even accidental death,” Boucher says.

Does the facility meet your standards?

When considering traveling to another country for medical care, it’s important to check whether the facility you’re using has been carefully screened by a third party. Medical tourism facilitators, such as Companion Global Healthcare, can assist you with this.

“Our organization works with sophisticated hospitals that are in most major medical companies’ international networks,” Boucher says. “These are not mud huts with rusty scalpels.”

If you’d rather save costs and book a medical procedure on your own, look for a facility that’s been accredited by the Joint Commission International, an organization that has surveyed and approved health care standards for facilities in more than 80 countries. Be sure that you’ve discussed your medical plans with the doctor at your facility of choice ahead of your visit, so that you know how much time to allow for your journey.

Given the travel costs and time involved, you may want to allow extra time in the country for sightseeing and relaxing. After all, you’ll be far more comfortable recovering from surgery on a beach in Phuket than on a 20-hour flight back to the United States.

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