The increasing popularity of medical tourism is convenience and speed as the public health-care systems are burdened with huge costs and can take considerable time to receive non-urgent medical care.
Rising health costs in developed countries including the US has forced patients to find affordable care elsewhere. Costs for regular procedures such as heart bypass and knee replacement can cost a fortune in America compared to countries like Thailand or Singapore.
Rise of medical tourism
Deloitte Consulting published a report in August 2008 projecting medical tourism’s growth in the US by ten times over the next decade. This could adversely affect US medical care providers billions of dollars in lost revenue.
As more Americans are looking overseas to receive their health care, Jeff Schult, author of “Beauty from Afar” – a guide to medical tourism, indicates that more than 100,000 Americans travel abroad annually just for cosmetic procedures. For example, in 2005 Bumrungrad Hospital in Thailand treated more than 50,000 American patients.
Dr. Matt Fontana, the chief medical officer for GlobalChoice Healthcare, a medical tourism booking company in Albuquerque, N.M says people are becoming choosy about getting the right procedure done at their chosen destination. Patients and businesses have realized they can save up to 80 percent on expensive medical procedures by going overseas.
A heart-valve replacement that would cost $200,000 or more in the US, costs about $10,000 in India that includes airfare and a vacation package. A metal-free dental bridge worth $5,500 in the US costs $500 in India, a knee replacement in Thailand costs about one-fifth of what it would in America. A hip replacement that would cost $43,000 in the United States costs only $12,000 in Thailand or Singapore. A Hysterectomy that would cost $20,000 in America cost just $3,000 India. Lasik eye surgery costs $3,700 in the US, but is available in many other countries for just $730. Cosmetic surgery savings are even higher. A full facelift costing $20,000 in the US could come up to about $1,250 in South Africa.
Sparrow Mahoney, a 27-year-old American entrepreneur, had an accident while vacationing in Croatia a couple of years ago. Being uninsured, she was scared to pay huge foreign medical bills. Doctors advised that an amputation was very likely. She was forced to consider the merits of losing her leg against huge medical expenses. She went ahead with the reconstruction and received a bill for just under $5,000. It could have easily been a six-figure procedure in the US. Now, Sparrow has completely recovered and is an active runner.
Tom Hiland, a 57-year-old real estate developer from Denver opted to travel to India for surgery to rectify a heart ailment. Having lost his insurance seven years ago, he feared the procedure in America could easily cost him over $150,000, but he paid only ten percent of that. The mitral valve replacement was successfully performed by a top surgeon, and almost a month’s stay at the hospital cost him only $15,000.
A Wisconsin-based company, Serigraph reimburses all medical expenses, including insurance to its 650 employees to fly to India for non-emergency procedures. The company also pays travel charges for the patient and his/her companion.
What are the risks?
There are many factors to consider as there is no uniform regulatory body. There are various malpractice laws that are difficult to each country and often complicated. The whole idea of undergoing invasive health procedures in developing nations has raised a lot of questions, and some people have started to wonder whether the savings are really worth it.
- Government medical insurance usually doesn’t cover for the medical procedure, and the the patient has to pay cash.
- There is minimal follow-up care. The patient normally is in hospital for only a few days, and then goes on the vacation part of the trip or might return home. Post-operative care, complications and side-effects are then the obligation of the health care system in the patient’s home country.
- Most of the countries that provide medical tourism have weak malpractice laws, so the patient has minimal recourse to local courts or medical boards if something were to go wrong.
- There are increasing accusations that private-sector medical tourism is purely a money-making venture.
Scott Spear, a Washington-based plastic surgeon, asserts that online testimonials do not compare to independent regulation. It is a risky decision to ascertain the full credentials of the health providers abroad. If you were to visit a place down the street where they have a piece of paper displayed on the wall that says they’ve been certified by the state and other organizations, you would feel much assured, adds Dr Spear.
Josef Woodman, the author of a guidebook on the topic called Patients Beyond Borders, believes that medical tourism is growing only because of the rising U.S. Health care costs and an increasing number of uninsured or under-insured Americans.
In the United States, the well-known accreditation group is the Joint Commission International (JCI) that inspects and accredits health care facilities and hospitals outside of the United States . And international hospitals consider obtaining international accreditation as a way to lure American patients.
The Medical Tourism Association (1) pioneers a solid educational platform for patients in developing markets to learn about healthcare providers worldwide. They annually hosts the world’s largest medical tourism event. This year’s Medical Tourism & Global Healthcare Congress will be held from 26-28 October 2011 in Chicago USA. They intend to set up networks of hospitals and facilitate the development of healthcare clusters.
The American Medical Association (AMA) (2), the largest association of physicians in the United States that aims for the improvement of the public health, supports the ability of patients to select their treatment procedures and providers. AMA has categorically stated that medical care outside the US does have advantages and there is an opportunity to learn from the international medical fraternity.
The AMA wants patients to make an informed choice. It has recommended a few principles for medical care outside the US:
- Medical care outside the US must be voluntary. However, patients opting to travel outside the US for medical care should be given sufficient information about the potential risks of surgical operations with long flights and vacation activities, and their legal rights prior to their travel.
- The financial bonuses to travel outside the US for patient care should not restrict treatment or referral choices.
- Medical care should be restricted to institutions that have been accredited by recognized international accrediting bodies , for example the Joint Commission International (JCI).
- Before travel, local follow-up care should be organized to make sure continuity of care when patient returns from medical care outside the US.
Dr. Ann Marie Kimball, a professor of epidemiology and health services at the University of Washington School of Public Health, in Seattle advises patients seeking medical care outside the US to look carefully at the accreditation of the hospital and view the nature of the procedure before making the right decision.
The best equipped and the most organized providers stand a chance to flourish. But the future for medical tourism will be in control of businesses that tie partnerships with healthcare organizations to provide complete services right from diagnosis through treatment to rehabilitation and recovery.
1) The Medical Tourism Association
2) The American Medical Association (AMA)