Medical Tourism: What You Should Know

About the authors
Billy and Akaisha Kaderli are recognized retirement experts and internationally published authors on topics of finance and world travel. With the wealth of information they share on their popular website, they have been helping people achieve their own retirement dreams since 1991. They wrote the popular books The Adventurer's Guide to Early Retirementand Your Retirement Dream IS Possible.

Edificio Sixtino Hospital in Guatemala City, Guatemala. Source: author.

We often get readers asking us basic questions about medical tourism and wanted to share the answers to some of the most common questions we get asked. How do you know if this option will work for you? The following should help you decide.

Q: I have heard the term "medical tourism," but what exactly is it?

A: Generally, medical tourism refers to going outside your own home state to receive medical care. For example, for years people in the U.S. have been traveling from their home state to the Mayo Clinic for treatment. Canadians often come to the U.S. for procedures, perhaps because they don't want to deal with long waits in their own home country.

Today, medical tourism most often refers to traveling outside one's own country for treatment. There are dozens of countries, such as Thailand, Mexico, Costa Rica, India, Guatemala, Singapore, and the Philippines, that offer excellent medical care in ultra-modern facilities to patients from other countries for very affordable prices.

Q: Isn't it scary having an operation in a foreign country?

A: The idea is frightening to many people, most likely because it is out of their comfort zone. Having surgery is stressful under the best of circumstances, and the thought of going outside one's home country can put some people over the top. Not everyone would choose this option, but for those who are self-insured, have limited coverage, or do not want to put off surgery such as a hip or knee replacement, for example, medical tourism can provide excellent care at prices that are feasible.

Q: What happens if something goes wrong -- say, my knee replacement doesn't work properly?

A: This is an excellent question, and often people stop pursuing the subject right there, assuming there is no assistance for them if something goes wrong. Shopping for a medical service provider overseas is to be taken seriously. Depending on which company you choose and the package you purchase, rehabilitation, medication, and follow-up care may be included in the price.

For those who are especially concerned about this, you can purchase "adverse outcome" insurance in the States before having a procedure done. The U.S.-based insurance company will pay out if, say, a facelift or hip replacement goes awry.

Q: What about dental care? Do overseas clinics offer that as well?

A: Some countries excel in dental surgeries and mouth restoration. Even if you want routine work such as a root canal, bridge, or crown, the money you can save by having it done elsewhere could pay for your trip. If you need several dental implants, you can save a significant amount of money by having the procedures done overseas.

Operating room in Edificio Sixtino Hospital, Guatemala City, Guatemala. Source: author.

Q: OK, let's talk more about cost. Honestly, is there that much difference considering that I need to take a flight and stay in a hotel?

A: Absolutely! It is no secret that the delivery of medical care in the States is beyond expensive, and is out of the reach of many, even those with insurance deductibles. If, for instance, you have a pre-existing heart condition or had cancer some years ago, many insurance companies will not cover you. In these cases, treatment in the States can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not so overseas.

For example: A heart valve replacement in the States can cost $170,000 but will run you $24,000 in Guatemala City. Chemotherapy in the States runs about $75,000 but is less than $20,000 in Guatemala City. A bone marrow transplant can cost up to $200,000 in the U.S. but will only run up to $25,000 in India. A spinal fusion runs between $80,000 and $100,000 in the U.S. but will cost you $6,000 to $10,000 overseas.

Q: And what about costs for follow-up appointments and therapy?

A: Some of the quoted pricing includes follow-up appointments, therapy, and general medications. You will need to research which company you want to use to see what is included in the personalized package you require.

Hospital room, Centro Medico Hospital, Guatemala City, Guatemala. Source: author.

Q: Do you know of anyone who actually has done this?

A: Because we have been traveling the world now for more than two decades, we know quite a few people who have had dental care and serious medical treatment overseas. A tennis friend of ours had his hip replaced in Guadalajara, Mexico, for $9,000 two years ago and now plays tennis five or six times a week. I have personally had root canals and crowns done in Thailand, Mexico, and Guatemala, and had emergency treatment for an injury to my finger.

If we get sick when we travel overseas or have an emergency, we want medical attention as soon as possible. We don't consider "going home" for treatment. Lots of long-term travelers feel the same way. Once you experience the quality of health care abroad and the personal treatment that is given to you -- and this includes house calls to your home or hotel room -- you find that you're in very good hands and can relax.

Q: You mentioned that you had an accident that required emergency attention. How did that work out?

A: I unexpectedly had my ring finger de-gloved -- badly injured, with loss of not only skin but other soft tissue as well -- in Antigua, Guatemala, in the autumn of 2012. I received excellent emergency care, and then required a hand surgeon, hyperbaric chamber therapy, and two surgeries. After 10 chamber treatments, 11 visits with the plastic surgeon, and two surgeries, the cost was less than US$3,000. You can see my detailed cost list here.

Billy also had an emergency medical situation that required a midnight drive to the hospital from Panajachel, Guatemala, to the capital city. After two nights in the hospital, CT scans, X-rays, blood tests, medicines, translator fees, and private doctor visits, the cost was only US$1,600. He also received excellent care.

Q: What about insurance? Will my North American insurance cover me?

A: It depends on your plan. Ours had a large deductible that was doubled for out-of-network providers, so we simply paid out of pocket for these emergencies. However, some stateside insurance plans are now offering an overseas medical tourism option as a way to save the provider money, and they will cover the cost of travel and the medical procedure. Many hospitals overseas advertize that they accept insurance from your home country. So you must take a look at your health coverage plan, and compare hospitals and medical tourism companies to see which works best for you.

For more information on medical tourism, see our Medical Tourism Page.

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