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Medical Tourism Saves Thousands, But …

By Marla Brill on February 16, 2017

With rising U.S. healthcare costs and insurance deductibles that rival a house down payment, traveling abroad for medical procedures is looking mighty attractive. Patients Beyond Borders estimates the medical travel market grew between 15% and 25% annually the last several years. In 2016 alone, 1.4 million Americans traveled outside the U.S. for medical care.

Cosmetic surgery and dental work, which health insurance typically won’t cover, have long been the most popular procedures to have done abroad. But cash-strapped patients also are traveling for gastric bypass, cardiac-related and orthopedic surgeries. You’ll have to weigh the benefits and risks, but proponents say surgery abroad can be safe and inexpensive if you take precautions.

The Hidden Price Tag

Lower cost is a big attraction of “medical tourism,” a phrase derived from the sunny destinations where procedures often take place—like Mexico, Costa Rica and Brazil. Depending on the country, procedure and physician, savings can be 20% to 80% less than the same procedure in the U.S. For example, a dental crown that costs $1,800 in the U.S. would set you back $300 to $900 in Mexico, according to medical tourism agency MedRepublic, while a $35,000 gastric bypass would range between $8,000 and $16,000 south of the border.

These prices don’t include travel expenses, such as hotels and meals, and with post-surgery recovery times extensive, you’ll need to factor those costs into the total price tag. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons suggests waiting five to seven days before flying after having liposuction or breast augmentation to avoid blood clots and other complications. Facelifts or eyelid surgery require patients staying put seven to 10 days after the procedures, and the Centers for Disease Control recommends the same length of time before flying after chest or abdominal surgery.

The time spent recovering abroad is unlikely to be as pleasant as the brochures would have you believe. Medical tourism may be marketed as concierge-style vacations (complete with airport pickup, spa packages and other amenities), but most people don’t go waterskiing or sightseeing after surgery. It’s not something your doctor would recommend either because of the higher risk of infection or scarring.

Quality Is Everything

The biggest concern, of course, is the caliber of the professional medical care. Although foreign countries can have excellent doctors and hospitals, reports of botched cosmetic surgeries performed overseas raise the possibility of disastrous outcomes. Some vacation destinations may not have formal medical accreditation boards to certify physicians or their facilities, and because many clinics are privately owned, it can be difficult to check the credentials of surgeons, anesthesiologists and other medical professionals. Plus, the required training and qualifications of foreign physicians may differ vastly from our own. Meanwhile, U.S. laws won’t protect patients who have surgery abroad, so there may be no legal recourse if things go wrong.

Still, you can minimize the risks by selecting only doctors and hospitals that meet international standards for medical care. Those physicians and institutions are accredited internationally with healthcare standard bearers such as the Joint Commission International, DNV International Accreditation for Hospitals, and the International Society for Quality in Healthcare.

Medical organizations in the U.S. can also help you track down accredited professionals. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons, for example, lists international member surgeons at plasticsurgery.org. While membership or accreditation with these organizations is a plus, any surgical procedure, even one performed in the U.S., carries serious risks.

So discuss your procedure and any travel-related precautions you should take with your U.S. doctor at least four to six weeks before the trip. Because you’ll need to coordinate your care in two countries, get copies of your medical records, including lab reports and other studies that helped diagnose the condition you’ll have treated overseas. List any allergies you have, and arrange for follow-up care with your local healthcare provider before you leave. After having surgery, get copies of those medical records before returning home.

Marla Brill is a financial journalist who has written for Reuters, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance and other publications.

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