Travel Trend: Medical Tourism

Healthcare costs in the US have been driving patients interested in elective procedures to other countries for years. But the last decade has seen an explosion in health facilities to support international patients. Low labor costs and quality medical schools are transforming many parts of the world into medical tourism hotspots.

According to the nonprofit Medical Tourism Association (MTA), you can save between 20% and 80% of the cost you would pay in the US on medical procedures abroad. But savings are only a part of the equation: Why recover on the couch if you can do it on an exotic beach or resort?

Today more than 400 healthcare organizations in 39 countries are accredited by the International Division of the Joint Commission, a nonprofit that also accredits US healthcare facilities. Countries like India have a highly evolved education system that produces thousands of qualified doctors and nurses. In addition, many top US programs have aligned with international clinics.

The most common procedures performed abroad are cosmetic, dental, bariatric (obesity) and orthopedic surgeries because they are considered elective and are often not covered by insurance in the US. However, several insurance companies have implemented medical tourism pilot programs, including Aetna, Blue Cross Blue Shield and WellPoint.

Cosmetic Procedures

Argentina, Bahamas, Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, Thailand, Mexico, India and Costa Rica

South Americans love their plastic surgeons, so it’s no surprise that countries like Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, Bolivia and Brazil are tops for cosmetic surgery. Practice makes perfect: One report found that more than 70%of middle- and upper-class women in Bolivia have had some form of plastic surgery, and estimates put the number of Argentineans that have undergone a cosmetic procedure at 1 in 30.

Fertility Treatments

Israel, Barbados and India

Israel is the leading destination for in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures, having the highest number of clinics per capita in the world. The US is a destination for Europeans because of higher success rates and more lenient regulations. Barbados is home to a JCI-accredited IVF facility promoting a relaxing atmosphere to ensure fertility success.

Orthopedic Procedures

Thailand, India, Costa Rica, Israel and the Bahamas

Many orthopedic treatments like knee replacement are considered elective surgery by insurance companies, so patients turn to international solutions to restore function to worn-down body parts. Improvements in arthroscopic technologies have made many orthopedic surgeries less invasive, so minor operations require shorter recovery times. Sounds like a great time to hit the beach for a little rest and recovery.

Dental Procedures

Mexico, Thailand, India, Costa Rica and Turkey

Dental insurance in the US tends to offer less comprehensive coverage than medical insurance and far fewer people have access to coverage, making overseas dental vacations especially popular. Americans travel to Mexican clinics due to their close proximity. In Thailand, patients check into the Bangkok Dental Spa for surgery and a complimentary massage in their private rooms.

Ophthalmological Treatments

Costa Rica, India, Malaysia, Mexico and Israel

Many US citizens have little or no vision insurance. As laser eye surgery has become safer and easier, patients interested in permanent vision correction have been flocking to overseas destinations for treatment. International clinics also offer procedures for glaucoma, cataracts and macular degeneration, as well as simple check-ups and prescriptions for contact lenses.

Bariatric and Weight-Loss Procedures

Costa Rica, Mexico, Argentina and India

The rise of elective bariatric surgery to treat obesity has spurred growth at destination clinics all over the world, but doctors caution that patients seeking weight-loss surgeries abroad need to consider long-term maintenance issues and should coordinate care with a doctor or facility at home.

Cardiology Treatments

Israel, Thailand, India, Bahamas and Jordan

World-class hospitals in several countries offer preventative heart health at staggering discounts. Patients in need of more serious corrective operations benefit from modern technologies and robotic implements that cause minimal incisions, allowing them to get back on their feet in less than a week. While a walking trip to Jordan’s Petra is probably ill-advised, the Dead Sea offers many luxurious resorts at which to convalesce.

Emerging Countries for Medical Tourism

Dubai

Dubai’s investment of billions of dollars in its healthcare system and partnership with top US medical institutions like Harvard is making it popular with medical tourists. Available treatments include cochlear implants, diabetes treatments, orthopedics, cardiology, oncology, obesity surgery, neurology, cosmetic surgery, physical therapy, dermatology, rheumatology, ophthalmology, lung treatments and urology.

Medical Safaris

South Africa

South Africa has been a popular destination for European medical tourists since the late 1990s, offering "medical safaris” that combine surgical procedures with luxury retreats at safari lodges in places like Kruger National Park. While treatment prices can be a bit higher, medical tourists are attracted to the country’s US- and UK-trained doctors. Popular procedures include cosmetic, dental, eye, laser and fertility treatments. But know the potential risks.

Traditional Chinese medicine

China

China is fast emerging as a destination for patients seeking treatments that integrate traditional Chinese medicine with Western medical technology and techniques. China is also home to stem cell research and hospitals that offer treatments considered experimental or that have yet to be approved in many Western countries. Other available procedures include cardiology, neurology and orthopedics.