Traveling abroad for medical treatment cost-efficient, but risky

by Gregory Karp ,  Chicago Tribune | 2008-12-14

With recent turmoil in other countries, consumers might be nervous about traveling abroad for medical treatment.

But medical travel, sometimes called medical tourism, can be a huge money saver for quality surgical procedures. It can be a wise choice, especially in recessionary times.

But it's not a decision to make lightly.

"It is clear that geopolitical forces are a factor in medical travel and add to the complexity," said Dr. Steven Tucker, president of the International Medical Travel Association. "Let's not forget it is always better to be treated at home, but currently some people feel that is not an option due to cost."

Medical travel is not a far-fetched idea. In 2007, an estimated 750,000 Americans traveled abroad for medical care, according to a report by the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions. It's an option insurance companies are considering. Health insurance giant WellPoint Inc. recently announced a pilot program that would provide coverage for group members to travel to India for certain non-emergency procedures, such as joint replacement.

Here are questions to consider if you're thinking about having a surgical procedure done in another country:

Am I a candidate?

If you need non-emergency surgery, you could save thousands of dollars by having a procedure done outside the United States if you don't have health insurance, have a high deductible or want a procedure not covered by health insurance, such as elective cosmetic surgery, weight-reduction surgery or in-vitro fertilization. Those without dental insurance also might be candidates, as are those who want a procedure not approved in the United States.

What are the savings?

In a list of pros and cons, saving money is the biggest advantage. Savings vary widely, typically from 15 percent to 85 percent. For example, a heart bypass in the United States might cost $130,000, compared with perhaps $10,000 in India or $18,500 in Singapore. A knee replacement that costs $40,000 in the United States might cost $8,500 in India or $13,000 in Singapore.

Those savings would more than cover the cost of round-trip travel for you and a partner, along with hotel accommodations for a partner. Bringing a spouse or other companion is widely recommended.

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