Globe-trotting to cut down on medical costs

by Ginger Rough ,  The Arizona Republic | 2009-06-07

Bob Light's prosthetic hip was eight years overdue for a replacement last summer. He couldn't work, was in constant pain and needed a cane to walk.

So the 55-year-old Cottonwood resident decided he could wait no longer.

He called hospitals in Arizona, Texas and California. The hip replacement, he was told, would cost between $80,000 and $140,000, depending on the amount of bone deterioration surgeons found. 
Eventually, Light hit on a better deal - in New Zealand.

He paid $20,000, including travel and lodging, for the surgery at a private Auckland-area hospital. The replacement was done Dec. 5, and he was home by Christmas.

Light, who owns a small landscaping business, is among a growing number of Americans who have become international medical tourists. They are traveling outside the United States to obtain health care either to save money or pursue higher-quality treatment.

"I was extremely worried. I had never been out of the (U.S.) before," Light said recently. "But it couldn't have been better if the doctors performed miracles."

Tourists such as Light, however, are taking several risks.

If a surgery doesn't go well, for example, a patient might have to stay in the foreign country longer or face lengthy follow-up care in the U.S.

If a doctor makes a serious mistake, there might be little or no recourse for pursuing damages for malpractice.

Officials in the medical-tourism industry say stories of botched surgeries and treatments are rare among their clients, although there is little hard data comparing quality of care among overseas hospitals.

One industry group, the Florida-based Medical Tourism Association, is building a database that will let people examine outcomes at hospitals in many countries, but it won't be available for two years.

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