This February, a 26-year-old Californian woman and her mother boarded a Continental flight for Costa Rica. When they arrived at the Sán Jose International Airport, a driver in a white van picked them up and took them to the five-star Intercontinental hotel. But the woman (who asked only to be identified by her first name, Jessica) hadn’t traveled to the city known as the Big Pineapple only to relax by the pool. She had flown more than 2,500 miles to undergo a weight-loss surgery—for a fraction of the price back at home.
Including airfare and accommodations (for her and her mom), Jessica saved $7,500 by choosing to go under the knife in Sán Jose instead of San Diego. “I thought it was such a good deal,” says Jessica, who needed to lose weight for medical reasons.
Jessica is what’s known as a “medical tourist,” and she’s one of an increasing number of Americans now seeking health care abroad for financial reasons. A new survey funded by Your Surgery Abroad, an online directory of medical tourism, found that more than 60 percent of Americans are willing to leave the country for cheaper medical services. “As people’s budgets in America are getting tighter, they’re much more inclined to start thinking about going abroad to save money,” says Adam Nethersole, the managing director of Your Surgery Abroad.
Wealthy patients have always crossed international borders (even the Nomads took trips to health spas), but the decreasing cost of travel has encouraged Americans of more moderate means to whip out their passports for medical procedures. And while more elective procedures like rhinoplasty and face-lifts used to attract consumers to exotic lands, a growing number of Americans are now traveling abroad for essential procedures like cardiology and cancer treatments.
Medical tourists from the U.K. and other European countries with national health-care services go abroad because of the long waiting lines for procedures. But in the U.S., Nethersole says, patients choose to go travel because surgery is cheaper in other countries. For example, the average cost of heart surgery is $50,000 in the U.S., versus $10,000 to $20,000 in other countries, according to Dr. Ron Johnson, the chief medical officer of Satori World Medical, a global health-care company specializing in medical tourism. But for less expensive procedures like colonoscopies, which run around $2,500 a pop in the U.S., it doesn’t make sense for Americans to travel, given the additional money they would need to spend on airfare and hotels, Johnson says.