As medical care becomes more expensive in the United States, many Americans are traveling abroad for non-emergency procedures such as hip replacement, cosmetic surgery, or even heart surgery. Each year, some 750,000 U.S. citizens travel to foreign destinations seeking medical treatment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of respondents to a Medical Tourism Association survey who traveled abroad for health reasons did so because they were uninsured. Americans also travel for elective procedures insurance doesn't cover. Cosmetic surgery and dentistry are particularly popular tourism choices, because they are rarely covered by health insurance.
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Cost is a big factor in deciding whether to seek care abroad. According to "Patients Beyond Borders," a guide to medical tourism, procedures that cost more than $6,000 generally are cheaper if performed outside the U.S.
Medical tourism is a rapidly growing business, with new facilities, travel agencies, and accreditation emerging all the time. Medical travel agencies help make appointments and arrange follow-up care, in addition to planning flights and accommodations. Some travel agents even specialize in particular treatments and destinations where the procedure is offered. It's a good idea to look at hospitals that have been accredited by Joint Commission International, which evaluates hospitals and medical centers based on proven standards, and the ability to ensure patient safety and quality of care.
Here's a look at 10 popular health destinations and medical treatments commonly performed in each country.
Mexico: Dentistry and Cosmetic Surgery.
Because of its proximity to the United States, Mexico has been known for border-town dentistry and cosmetic surgery for years. The country now has nine JCI-accredited institutions, many of which are affiliated with major medical educational facilities. It's also possible to find small, well-kept clinics outside of big cities, run by expat doctors and catering exclusively to Americans, where costs are less than half what they would be stateside. According to Medical Departures, a global medical treatment portal, a neck lift in Mexico would cost about $2,000, compared with $5,000 in the U.S.
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Costa Rica: Dentistry, Minimally Invasive Surgery, and Recovery.
After Mexico, Costa Rica is the leading health destination, according to the Medical Tourism Association. Americans travel to this temperate country for dental work, cosmetic surgery, and minimally invasive procedures. An Atlanta-based referral service for Costa Rican dental clinics lists the cost for a two-stage dental implant at about $1,500, compared with about $6,000 in the U.S. Costa Rica specializes in "recovery retreats," extended-stay accommodations, staffed with doctors and nurses, where patients recover from extensive surgery. The retreats typically provide transportation to and from appointments, meals, and concierge services.
Thailand: Complex Cosmetic Surgery.
One of the top countries for complex cosmetic surgery (including gender reassignment), treatment in Thailand often costs 50 to 70 percent less than in the U.S. Bangkok's Bumrungrad International Hospital has treated foreigners for decades, and offers an extensive variety of procedures. Packages for plastic surgery offer particularly handsome savings. For example, a complete face-lift, including lab tests, nursing, anesthesia, and a one-night stay in a single room, costs less than $7,000. Not included in the cost are airfare or accommodations in Bangkok after the procedure. But similar surgery in the U.S. can cost $10,000 to $15,000 -- just for the procedure, according to DocShop, a directory of health service providers. One other example is hip replacement, which typically runs about $18,000, compared with a U.S. average of more than $30,000.
Malaysia: 'Well-Person' Packages.
Malaysian hospitals were pioneers of the "well-person" package, which includes a range of diagnostic services, such as MRIs, blood work, bone density scans, X-rays, and dental, vision, and hearing exams, costing about $500, according to "Patients Beyond Borders." Malaysia is also becoming a destination for surgery, on par with Thailand but at a lower cost. Private hospitals such as Gleneagles in Kuala Lumpur pick up international visitors from the airport, handle travel arrangements including visas, help with insurance, and also arrange for sightseeing. English is almost universally spoken in the former British colony.
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India: Major Surgery.
India has 27 JCI-accredited hospitals and rates of success and morbidity that equal or surpass the U.S. There is no single specialty in India, but common procedures include orthopedic surgery (knee and hip replacement), coronary bypass surgery, heart valve replacement, transplants, and treatment of eye conditions. The ancient art of ayurvedic medicine, a combination of therapies used to treat symptoms of many diseases, is also practiced. India has a two-tier medical system in which profits from private hospitals and procedures paid by wealthy Indians and foreigners are passed down to public hospitals, where India's poor seek treatment. The savings for Americans are phenomenal. For instance, the average cost of coronary bypass surgery in the U.S. is about $75,000, according to a 2013 survey by the International Federation of Health Plans. In India a cardiac surgeon at the National Heart Institute in New Delhi estimates that the cost starts at about 2 lakh rupees, or about $3,000.
A highly developed nation with a bilingual population and first-class health care and facilities, Israel has been at the forefront of medical breakthroughs such as transplants, coronary bypass surgery, and in vitro fertilization. Additionally, the therapeutic benefits of the Dead Sea for dermatological, rheumatic, and pulmonary patients have made this a healing destination for decades. Herzliya Medical Center, a privately owned hospital, has accreditation and certification from Blue Cross Blue Shield for medical tourism procedures, and other hospitals make it easy for tourists by taking care of all the necessary paperwork. One of Israel's specialties is IVF. One clinic in Haifa prices a standard IVF cycle at about $6,000 including all the tests and treatments, whereas a fertility center in Chicago charges about double that amount.
Hungary is a global destination for people who choose to mix dental pain with travel pleasure. Europeans travel there for procedures as minimal as cleanings, and Britons have found Hungary a low-cost alternative to their own dental care. Such treatments would be cost prohibitive for Americans because of the cost of travel, but for more extensive treatments, such as dental implants or restorative surgery, the savings might make up for the expense. The cost for an implant in Hungary is as low as 500 euros (about $550). Dental clinics make it easy for tourists by organizing flights, accommodation, and treatment all in one package.
Singapore: Orthopedic Surgery.
With a planned medical tourism industry, the Singaporean government is promoting the country as a center of excellence for general surgery, oncology, transplants, and cardiology. Because of its distance from the U.S., Singapore is more of a destination for patients traveling from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Australia, although American tourism is becoming more common. English is widely spoken, and Singapore has one of the highest standards of living in Asia. Orthopedic surgery is a specialty. Singapore's Ministry of Health reports that the average cost for hip replacement surgery including a weeklong stay in a private hospital room is about $23,000. In the U.S., the cost of the surgery alone varies widely by location, from about $12,000 in Montgomery, Alabama, to $74,000 in Boston, according to Blue Cross Blue Shield.
Korea: Alternative Healing.
One of the world's most technologically advanced countries, South Korea has digitized all health records. The government has eased regulations to make South Korea a destination for medical tourism, although distance and a language barrier prevent many Americans from seeking treatment. The country offers alternatives to Western medicine in many of its hospitals and clinics. The Jaseng Hospital of Oriental Medicine in Seoul, for example, uses non-Western healing techniques to treat pain and spinal injuries. Among the offered treatments are Chuna manipulation to aid alignment; herbal medicines to strengthen disintegrated bones, discs, and ligaments; and acupuncture to relieve muscle tension. The facility offers an all-inclusive care package for international patients.
Patients are more apt to travel to Romania for recovery and healing (and to enjoy the scenery) than for any particular medical procedure. With at least 70 spas within the country's borders, Romania has been the center of spa culture for centuries, offering thermal waters, therapeutic mud, saltwater baths, and natural springs. Most spas complement the natural healing properties of the waters with treatments such as acupuncture, herbal medicines, and electrotherapy. Spa care is a fraction of the cost of similar services in the U.S. At a spa hotel on the Black Sea, for example, a six-day package with two treatments a day, including salt baths, massage, and special showers, costs 175 euros (about $200).
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