Medical Tourism: A Beginner’s Guide to Affordable Medical Treatment Abroad

Medical tourism is a global business

You’re sick.  Oh no. You really don’t feel well and yet you’ve got to make all these decisions on what to do. A friend told you about medical tourism.  That’s when people travel abroad to get medical, dental or surgical treatment.  Could travel be the answer to your medical problems?

But, all you can think about is being ill. What a huge drain on your energy!   You may have health insurance, but will it cover you for this particular medical condition?   How will you cope with your commitments?  Will you be able to support the children or pay the mortgage?  

You need to stay fit to keep up with your busy life. Can you afford to get quicker access?  The worries mount – and that’s on top of the bad news about your health.    

It’s filling you with dread; about the bills that will drop onto your mat, about whether you can keep working.  You don’t have time to be ill. 

Maybe you should think about medical tourism.  But how in the world do you start being a medical tourist?  And where in the world would you go for your treatment?  

Is it really feasible for ordinary people?  

Here’s What One Medical Tourist Chose

Ivana-Trump-at-Svjetlost-0419-1

In April 2019, Ivana Trump, the glamorous Czech first wife of the US president and a very rich woman, had eye surgery to solve her vision problems. 

Well, lots of people have eye surgery. 

(And it might be me next …….I’ve recently had a worrying diagnosis of an eye problem. Eek!)

But the interesting thing was where she had the surgery.  Ivana didn’t have it in New York where she has a home or in the Czech Republic where she comes from, but in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, at the Svjetlost Eye Clinic.  She chose that clinic for its world-class clinical excellence.

Ivana Trump took up medical tourism and went to Croatia as a medical tourist.

Your Medical Treatment Abroad is Big Business

Now you might think it’s only the rich who jet off to get treated and anyway, she’s choosing an elective procedure. You couldn’t possibly be like her, could you?

But WAIT- it isn’t like that any more.  

That’s how it used to be.  People used to travel to Western countries for more advanced treatment. Now people travel from Western countries elsewhere because of the difficulties of obtaining treatment in a timely and affordable way at home.  

Seeing a doctor is a waiting game

Patients Beyond Borders estimates Ivana Trump is one of somewhere between 20 and 24 million medical tourists around the world. (The International Medical Travel Journal (IMTJ) reckons that most figures are exaggerated.)  

Numbers are difficult to estimate because many countries don’t distinguish medical tourists from any other tourists.  ResearchandMarkets.com’s recent report forecasts that the global medical tourism market size is expected to reach USD 179.6 billion by 2026, with an annual growth rate of 21.9 %.

Plus, governments are producing libraries full of studies on how to develop their medical tourism.

When governments and economists start taking notice, it means there is a vibrant medical tourism market.  It means a lot of people are going abroad for medical treatment. It’s not just the rich.  And it’s a global phenomenon.

You too will find somewhere that solves your medical problem.  If you have the guts to do it.

Could You Take Off for Medical Treatment?

Daunting idea isn’t it?   But these days, plane rides are cheap – especially compared with medical costs. 

The complexities of organising a medical tourism trip

Armed with information from the internet, even low to middle-income people from the developed world are able to jump on a plane.

You can jet off to get a scan or have an operation. It’s just like going on a package holiday – easy.

Well perhaps not that easy, when you don’t know who is good in which country.  It depends what’s wrong with you too.

That’s why hundreds of medical travel companies have sprung up to help you sort out where to go and who to see.

The IMTJ has 108 pages of companies that facilitate medical tourism.  The Medical Tourism Association has pages of contact details for certified medical travel professionals who can help you.  

What Kinds of Medical Treatments and Where Can You Get Them?

According to Patients Beyond Borders, the most common procedures and treatments that turn people into medical tourists are:

  • Cosmetic surgery
  • Dentistry (general, restorative and cosmetic)
  • Cardiovascular (angioplasty, coronary arterial bypasses, transplants)
  • Orthopaedics (joints and spine; sports medicine, hip and knee replacements)
  • Cancer (often high-acuity or last resort)
  • Reproductive (fertility, IVF, women’s health)
  • Weight loss (LAP-BAND, gastric bypass)
  • Scans, tests, health screenings and second opinions.

 That’s not to say that people don’t travel abroad for other treatment!

illustrate medical tourism destinations

Destinations? The world’s your oyster.

The most popular destinations are often tourist destinations in their own right. So Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore are popular.

South Korea and Brazil have great reputations for cosmetic surgery and are great places to visit too.

Taiwan always figures in the top 10 medical tourism destinations, as do India and Mexico.

People from the Middle East might go to the UAE, Turkey or Israel.

North Americans find Mexico and Costa Rica conveniently near. Europeans might go to Hungary, Spain or Greece. The US, London, Germany and Switzerland attract the high end of the market.

And it can be a real holiday too

As well as getting your tests, scans and procedures done far more cheaply, you could combine your treatment with a conventional holiday.  Nothing like a bit of a holiday and some sightseeing to take your mind off your problems!

A beautiful view of Mont Blanc distracts you from visiting the dentist

(After dental treatment around Europe, the best and cheapest dentist I’ve found is in the mountains in France, so we’ll be making annual pilgrimages to see him. He hums Beatles songs whilst he works. And the view of Mont Blanc is unbeatable!)

Medical Tourism isn’t a New Idea

Medical tourism and the first medical logo

Medical tourism isn’t new. People throughout the ages have travelled to get medical treatment. For example, people have travelled to India for ayurvedic treatment for literally thousands of years. Pilgrims flocked to the asclepieia, the temples of healing in Ancient Greece, called after Asclepius. Asclepius had rod with a snake twisted round it, gave us the first medical logo. And that was centuries before Hippocrates thought up his Hippocratic oath.

But why have people recently taken up travelling in such vast numbers for their medical treatment? Let’s look at the reasons.

6 Reasons People Trust Their Precious Health to a Foreign Doctor.

1 Simply the best

Those who can afford it travel to the place where they can find the best medical treatment in the world. So the rich jet off to the US or Switzerland to obtain the very best treatment. These medical tourists include the Arab sheikhs, the Russian oligarchs and the Nigerian government ministers.

2 Saving money (and saving pain and saving lives)

It’s a sad reflection on our societies today that many people can’t afford medical treatment where they live. Uninsured or underinsured Americans flock to South America for the check-ups and treatment they just couldn’t afford at home. 

A Mexican report claims that Americans can save between 36% and 89% on their medical costs.  Check-ups and related lab work are particularly good value.

The cost of health care can be excessive

Alexis Monson commuted from Los Angeles to Mexico for health check-ups because, being self-employed, she couldn’t afford US health insurance. 

Melissa, also a US citizen, had a knee operation in Costa Rica because she couldn’t afford it in the US.

Patients Beyond Borders says that Indicative cost savings against US$ costs are approximately as follows: Brazil: 20-30%, Costa Rica: 45-65%, India: 65-90%, Malaysia: 65-80%, Mexico: 40-65%, Singapore: 25-40%, South Korea: 30-45%, Taiwan: 40-55%, Thailand: 50-75%, Turkey: 50-65.

These are numbers not to be sneezed at. It could be the difference between poverty as you age and a fun retirement.

3      You just can’t wait any longer

If you’ve got something wrong, you don’t want to wait for treatment. People living in countries like the UK or Canada, with great health systems but long waiting lists, (especially for non-urgent procedures), go abroad for quicker treatment when they can’t afford private care at home.

My British friend, Ray, went to Split in Croatia for cataract surgery because he didn’t want to wait for treatment any longer, even though it would be free on the National Health Service.

4          Talking your language

Some immigrants go home because they prefer to be treated in their own language. 70-year-old Rajeev, a UK resident of 50 years, went back to his homeland in India for a gall bladder operation. He could stay with caring relatives for extra time to recuperate and it was good to see his extended family while he was being treated.

5          People don’t want to share their medical history with the world

Some people go abroad for cosmetic surgery because they want to keep it private.  Olga from Russia went to Brazil for breast implants, saying she was going on holiday so that nobody knew what she was doing.  She had a good time whilst recuperating and a fund of great stories to tell about her ‘holiday’ when she returned home. 

Medical tourism includes cosmetic surgery

When Australian Wendy was a young teenager, a team-mate accidentally whacked her in the face with a hockey stick and broke Wendy’s nose. Her crooked nose made her very self-conscious about her looks. Wendy felt that going away to South Korea to get it done meant she wouldn’t have to justify why she was doing it, nor would she have to explain why she had big black bruises around her eyes.

She was excited, travelling to another country and had a great time seeing Seoul out of her black eyes. And of course, elective surgery of this kind is often cheaper abroad than in the developed Western world.

6          Obtaining treatment unavailable at home

People go to other countries because the treatment they require simply doesn’t exist in their own country.

For example, some countries have no or limited fertility treatment or they have age restrictions. Ukraine, Greece and Spain are popular places for IVF, egg donations, surrogacy and more.

Medical tourism facial cosmetic surgery

Others go to Brazil for highly specialised cancer treatment or plastic surgery.

I met a lady in the airport who was on her way to get stem cell treatment for arthritis. Still a controversial treatment not authorised in many places, she was off to the Caribbean, where the warm sun would provide benefit too.

I heard that 79-year-old comedian, John Cleese, of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers fame, has regular stem cell injections to keep himself young.

Is it All Relaxing by the Pool and Coming Home Cured?

Many companies accommodate their patients in a luxury hotel with lots of facilities whilst they attend hospital for outpatient treatment or while they are recuperating from their medical treatment.  

Recuperating by the pool

Hotels are cheaper than hospitals AND they have more luxurious features, such as spas and swimming pools to lounge around.

Choose a nice place to go to. You and your companion can enjoy being real tourists (assuming you’re mobile). You’ll still have easy access to aftercare.

Chilling out helps you get better quicker.

A word of warning.  Whilst there is plenty of evidence of successful outcomes,  medical treatment abroad can be risky.

What are the Medical Risks You might Face? 

Alas, some people find that they don’t receive enough aftercare. Getting better at home costs them even more than if they’d stayed at home for treatment in the first place.  Before you go, check with your usual doctor how you could deal with any problems after you return.

Victims of botched cosmetic surgery might require further surgery.  Medication may be counterfeit or of poor quality in some countries.

Or patients come home with new medical problems. Antibiotic resistance is a global problem but may be more common in countries other than your own. For example, an increasing number of people return from Mexico with antibiotic-resistant infections.

Flying after surgery can increase the risk for blood clots too.

But don’t forget that even in the Western world, things go wrong.  That’s why health insurance is so expensive and health costs so much higher.  The insurance companies and doctors have to pay for all the medical litigation going through the courts.  It’s global: you’ll find medical litigation in the US, in Europe and even in Asia.

Medical treatment is never risk free, wherever it is carried out.

Where There are Vulnerable People, There are Scams

It’s increasingly common to see fundraising appeals to cover medical costs.  Maybe for somebody with a rare or complicated disease where they simply can’t get any treatment in their own country for lack of facilities. Other fundraisers tell the story of a child with a rare genetic disease. The stories are heartbreaking.  Desperate people seeking help for their loved ones.

Beware medical fraud

But there are many fake stories.  Bad enough that fundraisers set up scams for someone who only pretends to be ill. But there are scams by clinics too. Some promise miracle cures that have no proven scientific basis.  (Does stem cell treatment for arthritis really work?)

Sometimes clinics offering these treatments exploit testimonials from the vulnerable.  In fact, the fake treatments often see people die before or during treatment and relatives then try unsuccessfully to get the patient’s ‘testimonal’ taken off the websites. 

ALWAYS check the credentials of any institution you are considering, in as many different ways as possible.

Regulation and Safety

What with scams and risks of medical negligence, you might be doubtful that you will get safe treatment, leave alone the best treatment for your problem.   But there are ways to minimise risks.

The global industry is recognising that it needs to demonstrate quality through regulation. You can look for institutions that are JCI accredited.  That’s an accreditation equivalent to the standards applicable in US hospitals.

The World Medical Association, at its General Assembly held in October 2018, set out a statement of recommendations and principles to be adopted by all players in the medical tourism market.

In addition, governments are seeing it as a moneyspinner for their economies.  The number of governments that have issued policies setting out standards in the last few years to encourage medical tourism is mounting.  Here are links to some examples:

Two Tips to Increase your Confidence

1     Try looking for hospitals operating in cooperation with renowned Western medical institutions.   Prestigious Western institutions such as Harvard Medical International and John Hopkins International are setting up hospitals in many of the countries popular for medical tourism.  Or look for hospitals that are JCI accredited. If you can choose one in your preferred country for treatment, it will give you more confidence in your choice.

2       Check out what you’re thinking of doing on medical tourism forums.  Try the medical tourism forum on www.flyertalk.com.  Another good source of information is the forum for patient experiences on Patients Beyond Borders.   Or try the Facebook Medical Tourism group.

Do your research before you commit.  Then, take a deep breath, screw up your courage and hit the BUY button.

Try out Medical Tourism on your Next Holiday

Illness is always stressful.  Who wants it?  So medical tourism is stressful, especially if you’re not used to travelling or it’s the first time you’ve tried treatment abroad.  

Persevere!  The stress beforehand is worth the freedom from stress later.

Imagine that you screwed up your courage.  You went to Costa Rica for a hip replacement or to India for a heart problem or to Mexico for a scan of a dodgy lump.  

Now imagine you’re feeling so much better.  The treatment did you a power of good AND you haven’t landed yourself in overwhelming debt.  You even managed to enjoy a little bit of real tourism as well as your medical tourism.

 If you have another medical problem, you know you will cope.   You have to take care in choosing where you go, but now you know the ropes.  You have more peace of mind.

Why not start off by organising some routine tests on your next holiday abroad – perhaps standard blood tests like cholesterol, triglycerides and blood sugar?  Or try out a doctor for a second opinion on a problem you have. See how it goes.  

Then, if the time comes when you develop a more serious problem, you’ll have some experience and some confidence.  

Think of your medical tourism as preventative medicine and rejoice in your longer, healthier life.

 

An afterword: my experience as a medical tourist.

I’ve had dental work done in Croatia, France, Belgium, Hungary and the UK and thermal baths treatment for a bad back in Hungary. (The massages there are out of this world.) I had great treatment in Russia for nerve damage in my arm after a skiing accident in Switzerland, but misdiagnosis and unnecessary treatment of osteoporosis knocked my confidence there. I survived the difficulties of being ill in Timor-Leste (and went back to London for treatment for a tropical disease). And over the years, I’ve had numerous routine tests, vaccinations etc in the 13 countries where I have lived.

8 thoughts on “Medical Tourism: A Beginner’s Guide to Affordable Medical Treatment Abroad”

  1. What a great and comprehensive article on medical tourism, Rosemary! I’m just recovering from a hip replacement here at home in Canada, and although I pay nothing for it, I did have an 18-month wait. I’ve some experience with dental work in Ecuador – cleanings for about a fifth of what they cost here.

    1. So glad you got your hip replacement done successfully. It will make a lot of difference to your life I imagine. Canada is like the UK – great health system except for the speed. How is it for aftercare?

      I think medical tourism is going to change the way we look at health care.

      Wishing you a speedy and healthy recovery. Best wishes, Rosemary

    2. Great article, Rosemary!
      Colombia is also a super popular place to get dental work, plastic surgery, and other surgeries done.
      In fact, I know a lady who invests in real estate down here that buys apartments close to the main hospitals, then rents them out on airbnb to all the people that come to get medical work done. Brilliant!

  2. Rosemary,
    Living in Mexico has shown me that healthcare can be affordable and excellent in quality. I have been amazed by the amount of medical tourism there is here.

    Marc Miller

    1. Hi Marc,

      Yes, I think the numbers are underestimated as it is so hard to get the right sort of data. From my observations, medical tourism is flourishing in many places. Glad that you’ve found the treatment in Mexico of good quality. It’s one of the big fears when you have no experience of it.

      Thanks and best wishes, Rosemary

  3. As long as you either have insurance or have paid the relevant taxes for a sufficient time, getting treatment in the uk is ok… if you haven’t paid for insurance or haven’t paid enough tax, hopefully access to the nhs will be restricted. People in the uk are sick of paying for medical tourists who have not contributed to the uk

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