The Costs and Savings of Medical Tourism: A Comprehensive Guide

Investigating Medical Tourism for Your Upcoming Surgery?

Add these considerations to your list before you decide where to travel

Having navigated the intricate pathways of medical tourism for almost five decades, I’ve seen firsthand the evolution of this fascinating industry. One of the most compelling aspects that draw people to medical tourism is the potential for significant cost savings. But let’s be realistic, the landscape isn’t without its pitfalls. Today, I’ll guide you through the financial intricacies of medical tourism: the savings, the costs, and everything in-between. 

The Allure of Savings

The primary attraction of medical tourism is relatively straightforward: high-quality healthcare at a fraction of the cost you’d pay if you receive care where you normally reside. That’s assuming that care you need is available. 

With more than 2/3 of the USA designated as rural or remote, not everyone has local specialists available. Yesterday, I had to arrange a referral, transportation and medical records transfer to a hepatologist specialty clinic in a city 5 hours’ drive to the north. Whether it’s robotic surgery or dental implants in St George, Utah, or weight loss surgery in Mexico, a liver transplant in Thailand, or a heart bypass in India, the savings can be substantial.  Cost reductions can range from 30% to as much as 90% just for the “s-u-r-g-e-r-y” depending on the procedure and the destination. But there are other costs that may outweigh the savings of traveling to a distant country instead of traveling a few hours by car or by air. So don’t pack your bags just yet; the savings are just one piece of the financial puzzle that attract medical travel patients.

Hidden Costs: The Other Side of the Coin

As much as I advocate for health travel, it’s my professional duty to prepare you for the full scope of potential costs. Let’s delve into some of these.

Travel Expenses Associated with Medical and Dental Travel

Airfare, accommodation, visa and immigration fees, risks associated with negligent or substandard care, risks of unassociated illness and injury while traveling, costs of local transportation, and meals, as well as aftercare, pre-and post-operative diagnostic studies, medications—these all add up. Don’t forget to account for the possibility of extended stays due to complications or the need for follow-up care or revision surgery.

Pre- and Post-Operative Tests

Some tests might be more affordable if done at your destination, but others could be necessary before you travel. Be sure to factor these into your budget. Check your insurance plan if you are insured to determine if these tests can be performed “in network” at a reasonable fee before departure. Nobody can give you an estimate without a confirmed diagnosis. 

Communication and Consultation

Be prepared for consultation fees. In the USA, expect the consultation fee to run from $350 to $1500. Abroad, expect interpreter service fees if you don’t speak the local language. Do not assume that just because a procedure in the USA may cover the 90 days of post-operative care at no additional charge that the same will apply when you travel for care – in the USA or abroad. Be prepared to pay for post operative follow up visits in the USA if your surgery package only included one pre-operative and one post-operative visit. 

Unforeseen Complications

Medical procedures carry risks, whether at home or abroad. The need for additional treatments or extended hospital stays can quickly ramp up costs that are not included in the package price you were quoted. What is your backup plan?

Insurance and Legal Fees

Medical complications can result in legal disputes. Some overseas hospitals may not have malpractice insurance, leaving you to bear the brunt of legal fees if something goes awry. How do you plan to handle this?

Your insurance plan may not cover the cost of any of your procedure, testing or follow up care if you travel on your own  without their express approval. Have you budgeted for this?

Quality Versus Cost: The Delicate Balance

I’ve seen too many cases where people were lured by unbelievable discounts only to receive subpar treatment at “accredited” facilities. Accreditation means that the facility meets the average level of care for the community in which the care is delivered. No more. No less. The correlation between cost and quality varies significantly from destination to destination, and from provider to provider. Therefore, a thorough background check is invaluable. Accreditation from international bodies is not always  a good indicator of quality at the level you expected. Don’t accept marketing promises that push the fact that the hospital is accredited to some other standard…. like some arbitrary USA standard – which does not actually exist!

As a trained and experienced hospital and medical group administrator and a former operating room nurse, I am competent to inspect medical tourism facilities, airports, accommodations and destinations and to vet the credentials of the practitioners and anesthesiologists. Are you? What you may not even realize as important to quality and safety, I don’t take for granted.  When I work with governments and providers to develop a medical tourism quality, safety program at a destination, I may be involved for 6 months intermittently before the first patient lands to receive care. 

Medicare and Insurance: What’s Covered and What’s Not  

Most U.S health insurance plans and Medicare provide little to no coverage for medical treatments abroad, Medicare only covers care in the USA and its legal territories. While an overseas facility may agree to bill U.S insurance providers, there’s never any guarantee that your insurance company will honor a bill for non-emergency services.  Carefully review your insurance policies to understand what might be reimbursable. If you don’t understand, ask someone. 

The Bottom Line: Planning and Research

If you think medical tourism is an opportunity to turn necessary medical treatment into a “vacation,” think again. It’s a serious commitment that requires meticulous planning and research. Done correctly, the savings can be immense. Done poorly, the costs—both financial and health-wise—can be devastating.

Over my 47 years in this industry, I’ve seen the joy in people who’ve successfully navigated the complexities of medical tourism, gaining a new lease on life without the burden of crippling debt. But I’ve also witnessed the opposite. My advice? Plan wisely, consult professionals, and weigh every cost against every saving. Your health is priceless; treat it as such.

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