Medical tourism wins fans

June 15, 2011

Paul Hambleton didn’t know what to do. He was uninsured, hurting, and facing a $30,000 bill to fix his torn-up knee.

So after researching his options, the owner of a valet-parking firm in Henderson, Texas, came up with an inspired solution. He got treated at a luxury facility, by doctors trained at top institutions, and enjoyed a sunny getaway at the same time, all at a fraction of the cost.

Of course there was a hitch: He had to go abroad. After checking out a number of local hospitals in Texas, Hambleton ended up heading across the border, to a facility in Monterrey, Mexico. The entire cost, including airfare: under $6,000.

“I was treated like a billionaire,” says the 52-year-old, who even squeezed in a couple of rounds of golf during his trip. “I had a Baylor-trained surgeon, a personal nurse the entire time, stayed at a top hotel, and had the best chicken enchiladas I’ve ever had. If I had my choice, I’d never go to an American hospital again.”

More Americans than ever are following Hambleton’s logic, and forgoing their local General Hospital in order to travel to places like Thailand, India, or Costa Rica for medical tuneups. More than half a million Americans every year, in fact, who are seeking out everything from dental work to cosmetic surgery to heart stents and hip replacements. It’s called “medical tourism,” and it amounts to a $40-billion annual business.

People should be rightly wary about going under the knife in another country, of course. You never want to find yourself in some poorly-equipped clinic, with doctors who don’t even speak your language, thumbing through a phrasebook to describe your condition.

But with 46 million Americans uninsured, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, seeking affordable treatment abroad has become a real option for many. And hospitals that cater to well-heeled foreigners, staffed with Western-trained surgeons, are only too happy to take your money.

“It’s a lunatic statement, to say that there’s no quality healthcare overseas,” says Josef Woodman, author of the book Patients Beyond Borders. “For baby boomers who are in financially challenging circumstances, there’s a lot of choice out there now.”

The savings can be significant. Angioplasty that can cost up to $43,000 in the U.S. costs $4,700 in India, or $7,300 in Malaysia, according to data compiled by patientsbeyondborders.com. And in terms of amenities, hospitals like the famed Bumrungrad in Bangkok put their cash-strapped American counterparts to shame. Touches like marble floors, gourmet food, and “Royal Suites,” more reminiscent of a resort than a hospital.

While medical tourism is largely a cost-related issue for the uninsured, top international hospitals do take insurance from American providers, and have service offices to help determine your coverage and assist in filing claims. When Josef Woodman had a procedure done at Bumrungrad, for instance, he had to fill out an international claims form, but the coverage and deductible were the same as if he were stateside.

Of course, medical tourism isn’t for everyone. You should have an open mind, be a seasoned traveler, and apply plenty of rigor to your search process. A few tips on finding quality care overseas:

Accreditation is key. Joint Commission International is the organization that makes sure foreign institutions are up to snuff; search potential options at jointcommissioninternational.org. If a hospital isn’t JCI-accredited, forget it.

Look for affiliations. Hospitals linked to prominent U.S. institutions can give you another layer of comfort, that all critical standards are being met. Johns Hopkins, for instance, has its own international medical center in Singapore.

Flight times matter. If you’ve just had major surgery, hopping on a 20-hour flight to return home isn’t the best idea. Consider adding on some recuperation time in your host country, or look to the increasing number of short-haul options in places like Mexico and Costa Rica.

Bring back your files. Complications happen, so make sure your hometown doctors have all the information they need for any follow-ups. “Bring it all back with you: X-rays, bloodwork, prescriptions, everything,” says Woodman. “It will help close the loop, in the unlikely event complications arise.”

Avoid trouble spots. If a country is embroiled in political or social unrest, there’s no sense in taking any chances. There are plenty of safe, stable options. “I understand why people want to stay at their local hospital,” says Hambleton, who went back to the same Monterrey hospital for hand surgery last year. “But the facilities abroad are phenomenal — and if you’re an American, you go straight to the top of the list.”

13 comments

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We at MedicYatra provide the services of Medical Tourism Facilitation in India’s Best JCI accredited Hospitals.
All kind of surgeries can be undergone in Indian Hospitals.
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Posted by MedicYatra | Report as abusive

For those who wish to know where Mr. Hambleton traveled for his knee surgery, the hospital was Christus Maguerza, a JCI-accredited hospital in Monterrey, MX. I visited the hospital last year, and saw many Americans in the corridors. First-class facility.

Posted by JosefWoodman | Report as abusive

Chris:

Nice job on providing a well balanced article on medical tourism. It is refreshing to see an article which paints a clear picture of the opportunities overseas for quality medical care. Most of the time journalists like to go for the sensational and sell the fear of the unknown.

Kudos,

Paul

Posted by hammervich | Report as abusive

I think this article is right on. I go to Mexico to have my teeth fixed and get glasses. I get better service, better prices, and they care. The medical community in the US has competition.

Posted by fred5407 | Report as abusive

This is like other overpriced American fields like law and government. Say, could we outsource our courts and rulers? Just watch — they will tax this escape too.

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

They do tax your escape. Americans are taxed abroad. If you give up your citizenship you have to file taxes for 10 years after. It is ridiculous.

Posted by djlowballer | Report as abusive

One vital factor the article doesn’t mention is the quality of foreign operation room teams. At a wild guess, Reuters doesn’t want the aggro of any possible lawsuits. However, the most important measure of the danger of any operation is how often the surgeon has done that proceducre before. To a foreign JCI hospital, where the team has performed your operation hundreds of times, their only competition in the US are the very best surgeons, who charge the very highest fees.

The key to foreign JCI hospitals is a huge pool of vastly better doctors, with a risk far below 3 percent for even the most dangerous operations. Many foreign doctors are famous around the world for their abilities, and the fact that they have never lost a patient, never made a mistake, and never been sued.

Posted by FirstAdvisor | Report as abusive

I find it ironic that Canadians come here to get X-Rays and CAT Scans, because it is cheaper and their is less waiting lists. Then go on too Mexico for their surgery and see their GP up in Canada for cheaper, quality follow up care their. The truly NAFTA healthcare system.

Posted by redsoxack2 | Report as abusive

Delightful note from gunchinchili. I know beaucoup folks among my grayhead peers whose “family dentist” is across the border in Mexico.

I have kin who spend their winter staying warm on the US side of the southern border; but, cross over and get their dental work done for a fraction of what I pay Stateside. And their dentist BTW belongs to and is certified by the American Dental Association.

I know of one Mexican dentist who now has the contract for city employees in an American border city.

Posted by Eideard | Report as abusive

The idea of going overseas for surgery can be a good idea. Here in Australia people go to India Thailand etc for face lifts and other forms of cosmetic surgery.
However if you have a heart attack as I did you don’t really have the time to organize everything. In my case I was going to die without prompt action so the local hospital put me into a helicopter and flew me to a large surgical hospital. The angioplasty was performed by the local expert and two weeks later I was back home again I don’t know how much it cost I never saw a bill. You guys should be hassling your politicians for a Government run system. It is cheaper and works a treat when you need it.

Posted by Sinbad1 | Report as abusive

Many people don’t realize that the costs of malpractice lawsuits and insurance in the US help make healthcare in the US so expensive. As long as the trial lawyers in the US can continue to pay off their political whores, no meaningful change will occur. So remember that if something goes south, so to speak, with your Mexican procedure, your surviving relatives won’t be able to sue everyone in sight and live the American dream off the proceeds of a lawsuit settlement or verdict. Not a bad tradeoff IMHO. Sometimes bad results happen and it’s nobody’s fault. We Americans have forgotten that and always want to blame somebody.

Posted by whatthatguysaid | Report as abusive

LOL! LMAO! Have you ever been to “Mexico”? I mean Mexico, not Mazatlan or some other tourist destination? Mexico is a perfect toilet. Minus one vital component: a handle to flush it.

I’ve been there dozens of times. Corruption and debasement of all peoples of Mexico is a social “value” in Mexico. Don’t like it? refuse to ‘see’ it? your problem.

This is ‘America’ and listen to the B.S. we have to listen to about the “best nation in the world” from pundits.

Think being ‘American’ does you any favors in today’ world? Think again. When over seas, you are walking on egg shells to avoid confrontation to avoid becoming a focus for little social control over popular outbreaks of violence.

Want a ‘procedure’ done in Mexico? Go ahead. Every day liberals make decisions that re-enforce the argument that Darwin may indeed have had a point, in despite what God has said.

Posted by peter45114 | Report as abusive

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Medical Tourism truly provides a benefit to the uninsured as well as Self Insured Employers with ever increasing costs and difficulties accessing quality healthcare. Visit http://www.minervajourneys.com/ to learn more.

Posted by MinervaJourneys | Report as abusive