Medical tourism keeps growing High costs in US, lack of insurance drive many abroad

by Ginger Rough ,  The Arizona Republic | 2009-06-15

PHOENIX — 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. "But it couldn't have been better if the doctors performed miracles."

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.