Consumers trying to combat the rising cost of health care are increasingly going abroad to have medical procedures—but experts warn, buyer beware.
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“Just like any industry, you are going to have good companies and not so good companies,” says Renée-Marie Stephano, president of the Medical Tourism Association. “The problem is there is no regulation for medical tourism facilitators. There are companies that may put together a network of providers not based on best practices.”
From spine surgery to cancer treatments, medical tourism is becoming more popular--especially among uninsured patients.
“People can save 10% to 50% or 60% for particular medical procedures,” according to Stephano.
But patients shouldn’t let the savings cloud their judgment—they need to do thorough research on the facility, doctor and procedure before making any decisions.
“People should definitely do their homework and should discuss with their primary care physician whether they are physically able to travel overseas.”
For years people have traveled outside of the U.S. for all types of cosmetic and elective surgeries, like facelifts or nose jobs and then combine it with a vacation while they heal. More recently, however, the trend has evolved to include more serious treatments for things like knee and hip replacements, cardiac procedures and neurosurgery.
According to the Medical Tourism Association, countries including India, Thailand and Singapore have emerged as leaders in catering to medical tourists while countries in Asia, Latin American and Europe are starting to catch up.
People are drawn to these destinations largely because the price of the procedures is drastically cheaper than in the U.S. For example, the Medical Tourism Association estimates a knee replacement will cost $40,000 in the U.S. That same procedure will cost $11,000 in Costa Rica and $8,000 in India. Gastric bypass surgery comes with a price tag of $35,000 in the U.S. but only $11,500 in Mexico, according to the association.
Experts remind patients that medical care is not an exact science so there’s risk of complications, the danger of traveling with a condition, the safety and security risk of an overseas city and the risk that the care won’t be adequate or up to U.S. standards.
“Consumers need to know in the long run it may end up costing more depending on the complications,” says American Society of Plastic Surgeons President Dr. Gregory Evans. “They need to do research more than price.”
Planning a trip for medical reasons has the same options for a recreational vacation: You can either plan, research and book the trip yourself, or use a medical tourism facilitator.
Experts advise patients that choose a medical tourism facilitator to read reviews and do research to make sure they choose a qualified professional.
Stephano says to go with a facilitator that provides options and doesn’t refer one specific hospital or doctor. What’s more, she says a consumer shouldn’t blindly accept what the facilitator says about the doctor. Ask for evidence the hospital is accredited and that the doctor is board certified. Check with the Better Business Bureau to ensure there are no judgments against the company and look online for any reviews of the medical tourism facilitator before paying any money.
According to James Goldberg, author of The American Medical Money Machine, more travel agencies are getting into the medical tourism business and establishing relationships with foreign hospitals as a way to offset the declines in vacation travel. These companies bill themselves as experts, but he says they have little experience or authority to know what constitutes a good hospital.
“Anybody who gets a recommendation from a travel agent should be very wary of it,” says Goldberg. “Consumers need to communicate with the hospital and be able to speak to the doctor and get proof of their qualifications.”
Regardless of whether consumers finds a hospital on their own or through a facilitator, Goldberg stresses they need to research the medical education of the surgeon, number of surgeries/procedures complete and the outcome rate. “It’s necessary for patients to be wise buyers of these services. They have to do their homework,” says Goldberg.