Is Medical Tourism a Safe Alternative to U.S. Healthcare Costs?

Healthcare is a huge expense Americans struggle to deal with daily, especially for those without health insurance. In fact, the United States offers some of the most expensive healthcare in the world. Yet, as of 2007, over 45 million Americans lacked health insurance and even more were under-insured. That’s why more and more people are turning to medical tourism as a way to save money on the expenses associated with various medical needs.

In fact, medical tourism is a rapidly growing industry and it’s no wonder. Forbes.com reports those who opt for overseas care can enjoy almost no waiting time and a cost savings as high as 90 percent, depending on the procedure and the country where it’s performed.

However, this practice raises the issue of whether the saying, “Get what you pay for”, rings true. Is medical tourism really a safe alternative to the United States surgery or does cheap healthcare lead to disastrous results?

What is Medical Tourism?

Medical tourism is the practice of traveling outside the United States to have medical procedures performed in other countries for less money. The Wall Street Journal reports that this year, it’s estimated six million Americans will travel to other countries in search of affordable medical care, a huge jump from the 750,000 medical tourists of 2007.

Cost of Healthcare Overseas Versus the U.S.

As an example of how much more expensive surgery in the United States is compared with other countries, a breakdown of the costs associated with a heart bypass surgery is detailed below. The information comes from Healthbase, a U.S.-based medical tourism facilitator:

Heart Bypass International Surgery Cost

  • United States: $130,000
  • Thailand: $11,000
  • Singapore: $18,500
  • India: $10,000

The trend continues with other common surgeries as well. As explained by Reuters, a 2007 Commonwealth Fund report found “health spending was $7,290 per person in the United States…Australians spent $3,357, Canadians $3,895, Germans $3,588, the Netherlands $3,837 and Britons spent $2,992 per capita on health in 2007. New Zealand spent the least at $2,454.”

These results show Americans are spending about double on healthcare than people other countries. Plus, they are not just traveling abroad to have medically-necessary procedures performed, either. Discount cosmetic surgery is quite popular as well, sending thousands overseas for breast implants, rhinoplasties and more every year.

Risks of Overseas Surgery

Even though medical tourism can allow you to receive life-saving medical procedures at a fraction of the cost, there are numerous risks you assume by leaving the country:

Liability: Patients may not be covered by their insurance company, which can make seeking damages in the case of medical malpractice very difficult. Most hospitals have malpractice insurance, but laws can vary and it’s much easier to file a claim within your own country.

Disease: There are a host of health risks in countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Costa Rica that are rare or non-existent in the United States. Obtaining healthcare overseas could make you susceptible to infectious diseases that will delay or prevent recovery from your procedure.

Quality: Every country has qualified medical professionals and hospitals that maintain a high level of cleanliness and professionalism. Even so, there are just as many, if not more, fraudulent and under-trained practices. Choosing a doctor from across the world or through a third party makes it harder to judge whether you’ll truly receive the best care.

Medical tourism is essentially a trade-off–you must either choose savings or safety. Your decision to travel for medical purposes should be heavily determined by the immediacy of your need and your true ability to pay for the surgical operation. Medical tourism may benefit those facing a life-threatening complication who could otherwise not afford to treat it. On the other hand, an elective but equally risky operation is best performed at home, if at all.