It’s no secret that healthcare in the U.S. is expensive. Americans spend nearly twice as much on health care as people in countries like the U.K., France, Germany and Switzerland. Compared to other countries, administrative costs, medication prices and frequent referrals to specialists in the U.S. are the main reasons for the high prices.
What Is Medical Tourism?
Medical tourism is any travel outside one’s country to receive medical treatment. Medical tourists often are:
- patients with preexisting conditions that need advanced procedures unavailable in their countries;
- patients who can’t afford healthcare in their own countries;
- patients suffering from diseases with cures that may be experimental or inaccessible in their own country.
A growing number of individuals facing health crises where services are not easily accessible due to financial constraints opt for medical tourism. It can be risky, though. Even when precautions are taken, the receiving country may not offer the same level of safety and regulation as you get in your home country.
Experts agree that it’s essential for prospective medical travelers to research before deciding to go abroad for treatment.
What Are the Risks of Medical Tourism?
Almost anything in life carries a certain degree of risk. So before you hop on a plane for treatment, consider the following hazards.
The U.S. healthcare system is heavily regulated by federal agencies whose mission is to prevent medical errors and ensure high-quality care while minimizing risks. If you are going to become a patient in another country, you should ask these questions first:
- Is the hospital reusing its instruments?
- How does it handle infection control?
- What kind of nursing care does the hospital provide?
Antibiotic resistance is indeed a global concern. However, in some countries, it is more likely to occur. For instance, medical tourists have been exposed to highly drug-resistant bacteria.
If you don’t speak the language, it will undoubtedly be challenging to communicate with the destination and healthcare facility staff. This could lead to misunderstandings about your treatment.
Be prepared to ask questions like, How experienced is the surgeon? How many cases has the surgeon done? Is the surgeon truly certified in that specialty? What types of medications are they able to administer?
There is a certain amount of recovery time associated with every procedure. Considering the risks of post-procedure air travel might make you reconsider receiving treatment abroad.
Flying after surgery can place you at a higher risk of blood clots, particularly deep vein thrombosis. Do not travel by air for at least 10 days after having chest or abdominal surgery to avoid risks associated with changes in atmospheric pressure. Also, anyone who has had cosmetic procedures on the face, eyelids or nose should wait 7–10 days before flying.
You should also consider how much time you are willing to spend outside of the country if there are complications with your procedure.
Different countries may also have different medical ethics. In other countries, experimental therapy, like stem cell therapy, can be widely available in private healthcare institutions for medical tourists. Likewise, medical ethics regarding organ transplantation are often different from country to country. Due to the multiple jurisdictions involved and lack of clarity concerning which law applies, patients may not be able to pursue malpractice lawsuits if problems arise.
While the cost of a procedure might save you thousands, don’t forget to factor in the cost of air travel, lodging and transportation. Additionally, if you’re traveling abroad for a procedure, you may need a relative, a friend or a companion to advocate on your behalf.
How to Minimize Medical Tourism Risks
Receive a Pre-travel Consultation
When traveling abroad for medical care, see your healthcare provider or a travel medicine provider 4-6 weeks before your trip to:
- review general information about healthy travel;
- learn about any specific risks you may face due to your health status, the procedure, and travel before and after the procedure.
You should also obtain international travel health insurance covering medical evacuation back to the U.S.
Be Sure to Keep Health and Medical Records
Bring a copy of your medical records, as well as the results of any lab tests and other tests performed in connection with your condition and care. Make sure your medical staff is aware of any allergies you may have. Provide a list of all the medications you take, including their brand names, generic names, manufacturers and dosages, as well as copies of all your prescriptions.
Before returning home, make copies of your medical records from the destination. They may need to be translated into English.
Research the Healthcare Provider and Facility
Verify the credentials of the healthcare providers performing the procedure and the credentials of the facility where it will take place. The Joint Commission International, DNV GL International Accreditation for Hospitals and the International Society for Quality in Healthcare have lists of standards that facilities must meet to become accredited. Note that all surgeries are subject to complications, and accreditation does not guarantee a positive outcome.
Get Ahead of the Language Barrier
If you go to a country where you do not speak the language, determine ahead of time how you will communicate with your doctor and others who will be caring for you.
Arrange for Follow-up Care
Identify where you will stay immediately following the procedure.
You should ensure that you can get any follow-up care you need in the United States before traveling abroad for medical tourism.
A Parting Reminder
It’s important to discuss the risks and benefits of medical tourism with your doctor and work with your insurance provider to plan a trip that balances financial savings with safety. Before going overseas for your procedure, make sure that you are financially prepared for unforeseen events. Unless you can afford to return home in an emergency, do not go abroad.