Medical Tourism

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Medical Tourism
Medical tourism sounds exotic. In reality, however, the tourism part has little to do with most patients’ motivation. Unlike the past when traveling to receive medical treatments was the province of the wealth, today it is a response to 3 things, globalization, a general increase in travel, and the rising cost of medical care. Proximity has made it feasible for Europeans to travel outside their native country for medical procedures and treatments for years. Today many “medical tourists” are patients from countries with national health programs, like the United Kingdom or Canada, who travel to other countries to avoid long wait times. Americans are increasing jumping on the medical tourism bandwagon and it’s not just those without insurance. Patients with health insurance sometimes travel abroad to avoid high co-pays or to gain access to cutting-edge or experimental treatments, including access to drugs and procedures not yet approved in the US that may be available in the other countries. West to East travelers cite cost savings as the main reason for medical travel with saving of 40% to 80% often being reported, while those traveling East to West are often seeking improved quality of care.

Although in most situations, treatment received out of the country will not be covered by your health insurance there are a few exceptions: if your health insurer offers a global network option, if they have a relationship with a foreign provider, or if treatment is being performed in a foreign branch of a US hospital. Many overseas hospitals are establishing strong ties to American medical centers. For instance, Johns Hopkins Singapore International Medical Centre is a branch of John Hopkins University in Baltimore. Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok claims to employ over 200 surgeons who are board-certified in the United States. Most are English speaking.

The Joint Commission (TJC) is a nonprofit organization that accredits more than 20,000 health care organizations and programs in the United States. The Joint Commission International (JCI) is an extension of TJC that provides accreditation for hospitals and clinics, laboratories, long- and short-term rehabilitation facilities, primary care, home care, medical transport, and more, in 54 countries. Patients seeking medical care overseas, whether as a medical tourist, tourist in need of medical care, or as an ex-patriot, can use the JCI’s website to identify accredited facilities in their locale. Not all medical tourism destinations are outside the US, however, the Cleveland Clinical for example markets itself worldwide as a medical destination and has become a major center for inbound medical tourism in the United States. Below is list of popular procedures and destinations for medical tourists.

Specialties Popular Procedures Popular Destinations
Bariatric surgery gastric sleeve, gastric bypass Spain
Cardiology bypass surgery, heart valve replacement India
Dentistry dental implants, veneers, crowns Thailand
Dermatology mole removal, acne treatment Malaysia
Hair restoration hair transplant Turkey
Oncology breast cancer treatment, chemotherapy Germany
Ophthalmology Lasik, cataract surgery Hungary
Orthopedics knee or hip replacement, spine surgery United Arab Emirates
Plastic surgery liposuction, breast implants, rhinoplasty Poland
Reproductive medicine in vitro fertilization (IVF) Mexico


Medical travel agents are available to help research and book medical treatments, as well as make all travel arrangements. A search using the phrase “medical tourism packages” will return hundreds of entries. Careful research is needed. Several medical organizations and societies, including the American College of Surgeons and the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery have issued position statements on medical tourism. All recommend making the decision in conjunction with your physician, vetting foreign facilities, and traveling with all medical records. Poor physician training and shortened postoperative care are often quoted as potential risks of medical treatments abroad.

Medical tourism is increasing and becoming an important source of income for many foreign countries. All medical procedures carry the possibility of risk. While the risk associated with treatment received abroad may be somewhat different, do not imagine that you will be receiving treatment in a rundown clinic in a back alley of a third world country. Most of the facilities are modern, well-equipped, and staffed with well-trained medical personnel, many of whom trained in the United States or Europe. Before making a commitment, discuss your thoughts with your health care provider and insurance company and take the time to properly research your destination hospital/clinic and the staff.

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