Why Get Treated Overseas
For most people needing medical care, a growing number of medical tourists are setting out for India, Thailand and Latin America for everything from dental work to breast implants to major heart surgery. Rising health care costs, lack of infrastructure or technologies push people to seek medical treatments elsewhere, while medical facilities in developing countries have not only caught up to western standards but also in many ways exceeded them. Patients are usually surprised to find brand new facilities and equipment as hospitals and medical tourism hubs around the world join in the fierce competition for this fast growing market.
This is the main reason most people initially cite for their decision to go overseas for medical treatment, but the situation is actually even better than the bare numbers suggest. Figures that are normally thrown out range from one quarter to one tenth the price of US care, with dental work firmly occupying the one-tenth corner. These estimates are based on India, which is commonly the lowest priced option of sufficient quality for Westerners. While there is considerable variation, as a rule of thumb Thailand, India's major competitor, is approximately 20% more expensive while the South American and other medical tourism hubs weigh in at 50-100% more than India.
Dental work is the biggest saver with medical tourism - 90% savings across the board are standard in India and Thailand with excellent facilities. As a rule of thumb, minor work on one tooth will pay for your plane ticket and a second pays for a week on the beach afterwards. Major surgery will pay for your entire family. Imaging and diagnostics are a large part of medical fees, and many US hospitals now contract with Indian laboratories to interpret X-rays and MRI images, where the physician time to analyze the image often costs as much or more than the image itself. Unfortunately, many patients aren't able to travel if they need an MRI, but if it is a component of a surgery or checkup it is widely available at most high-end hospitals that medical tourists frequent, along with more advanced diagnostic equipment in some of the best facilities.
Beyond having a lower price, however, foreign hospitals are far more willing to provide upfront prices and quotes than US hospitals, which will generally equivocate and, if pressed, give only a rough estimate. More complicated surgeries will still be estimates at foreign clinics, but they are consistently more forthcoming about the cost of past procedures and for minor procedures they will often offer set packages that cap the total cost, barring complications. These caps are excellent for planning purposes and comparing options in various countries. This openness is a product both of intense competition for foreign patients and a confidence that regardless of how high a foreign clinics' price may be, it will still be much lower than their Western competition. Medical tourism reverses the trend of many businesses and the tourism industry in general in that those looking overseas can expect more honesty up-front and fewer hidden costs than those considering a US hospital.
Table: Comparing Medical Treatment Pricing
One common misconception is that while foreign medical procedures are much cheaper, they must be paid out of pocket. It is telling that even with this belief, the deductible for many insured patients is so high that they still travel overseas for treatment. The reality is that most insurers are not only willing to reimburse your medical expenses overseas, they will often be thrilled to solve your problem without paying domestic medical rates. The issue then becomes getting your records and receipts to the appropriate insurance official. Many hospitals boast strong ties with insurance companies and service with regards to clearing claims as their key advantage over competitors. If insurance reimbursement is an important part of your medical tourism deliberations, it is important to learn up front if your prospective hospital offers this service and it will be worthwhile to go to a more expensive center if they do not. This is particularly important when looking at Indian hospitals, which often are very poor in this regard. Tourists from countries with state-run medical systems like Canada and the UK can also often get their treatments reimbursed, though they will need to locate the appropriate offices and forms ahead of time.
Beyond simple costs, many people appreciate the superior service found in foreign hospitals. Whereas in the US and EU many tasks are performed by orderlies, in the medical tourism hubs there is a plentiful supply of registered nurses. Where in the west a patient might be told where to go to collect medications or see another doctor, a medical tourist can expect to be escorted. US doctors are often harried with too many appointments and rush in and out, whereas doctors in major tourist hospitals have much easier work schedules and emphasis is placed on spending time on each patient, both as a matter of patient care and to stress a point of superiority over western hospitals. Upon checkout, medical tourists are treated courteously, sometimes reverentially to the point of embarrassment depending on the country, and billing is often performed with less hassle and bureaucracy than in the US.
For the price of a basic single in the United States, a medical tourist could rent an Imperial or Royal Suite at our Indian network hospitals, including guest bedrooms, a living room and a dining room. These are especially popular with wealthy Arabs and are often booked weeks or months in advance.
One of the major issues that prospective medical tourists grapple with is accepting a reduction in quality, not just in facilities but also in the physicians themselves. It is natural to assume that if something is cheaper then it must be of lower quality, but for a well-planned medical tour the situation is the opposite. When going to the average facility in the US, you will almost certainly have an average doctor - it not being possible, after all, that every doctor available be "above-average." If you plan your trip carefully, however, it is possible to ensure that you will have eminent, very experienced physicians - effectively the best that country has to offer.
Our selected doctor for your medical tour is trained in the US or Western Europe from years of college, med school and residency abroad. Medical tourism effectively allows you to receive upper-class treatment. Quality goes up, not down.
Another factor is not only the availability of cutting edge treatments but also the availability of common surgeries. In state-run health programs like those in Canada or the UK, waiting lists can extend to more than a year for essential surgery and past three for non-essential surgery. With a well-planned tour, most surgeries can be conducted within days of landing and consultation in any of the medical tourism hubs. If payment for the treatment is covered by the state program, as most medically essential operations are, medical tourism is the obvious choice for Canadians and Britons.
Medical tourism is often as much about the tourism as the medicine. For those undergoing major surgery, there is no better place to recover than a bungalow with a view of the beach while receiving your physical therapy (or massage). Similarly, for family accompanying a patient a week at the beach or a shopping spree can clear up a lot of stress following a surgery.
For patients undergoing out patient treatments ( Health Check Programs, Dental Treatments and Cosmetic makeovers, there is even more incentive to be a medical tourist. Given the cost of dentistry, the savings for even minor work can cover the cost of the trip. Many regular medical tourists will plan their physical exams, dental work and other minor services, like cosmetic surgery, and bundle them in with a weeklong beachside vacation in the tropics. Overall, their vacation is still cheaper that having the services in the US. Many companies are also appreciating this strategy, sending employees on vacations to save on medical costs and saving on health insurance while giving their workers care they otherwise might not have access to.