Medical Tourism Is Great -- for Those Who Can Afford It

by Niko Karvounis , | 2008-08-21

Americans going abroad to deal with their medical problems would only cut health costs 1-2 percent -- not enough to solve our greater crisis.

You've probably heard about "medical tourism," the traveling of patients to foreign countries in order to receive care. But what you may not know is just how popular medical tourism has become: according to Deloitte LLP, an international consulting firm, an estimated 750,000 Americans traveled abroad for medical care in 2007. Aggressive projections put this number somewhere around 6 million by 2010.

As interest in medical tourism increases it's important to understand the nuts and bolts behind its allure, and the risks that it poses -- both for patients and health care systems at home and abroad.

Saving Money

Over the past few years insurers and employers have warmed up to medical tourism as a way to save money: its cheaper for insurance plans to help fund patients' trips to foreign doctors who charge much less for procedures than their U.S. counterparts.

The price differentials  are stunning. According to a recent Deloitte report, Thailand, the world's leading medical tourism hub, saw 1.2 million medical tourists from around the world in 2006. On average, medical procedures in Thailand cost a mere 30 percent of American prices. India, another destination that sees more than 400,000 medical tourists each year, charges just an average of just 20 percent as much as the U.S. Thousands of Americans also flock to Mexico and South America every year for cosmetic and dental surgery, where procedures cost anywhere from 75 to 50 percent less than they do in the U.S.

Data from the University of Delaware offers more specific numbers: "A heart-valve replacement that would cost $200,000 or more in the U.S., for example, goes for $10,000 in India -- and that includes round-trip airfare and a brief vacation package. Similarly, a metal-free dental bridge worth $5,500 in the U.S. costs $500 in India, a knee replacement in Thailand with six days of physical therapy costs about one-fifth of what it would in the States, and Lasik eye surgery worth $3,700 in the U.S. is available in many other countries for only $730. Cosmetic surgery savings are even greater: A full facelift that would cost $20,000 in the U.S. runs about $1,250 in South Africa."

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