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Medical Tourism: Is It for You?

Mr. V.C. broke a tooth, and his dentist told him it would cost something like $6,000 to fix his dental problem. Like most seniors, V.C. had no dental insurance, and his dentist’s estimate gave him a severe case of sticker shock. Getting on the Internet, he found reports of dental clinics in a range of countries, from Mexico to Malaysia, claiming the procedure he needed would cost only $2,000 in their offices.

That story illustrates the allure of “medical tourism” to many U.S. and Canadian residents. Foreign clinics promise well-trained doctors, many educated in the U.S. or Canada, the most modern equipment, various accreditations and affiliations with prestigious U.S. and Canadian hospitals, at costs much lower than at home. Estimates of the number of medical tourists from the U.S. and Canada range from one million a year up to several times that number. In any case, however, it’s a big business.

As far as I can tell, medical tourism is of greatest interest in four cases:

  • Travelers considering elective medical procedures not covered by their health insurance or Medicare, most notably cosmetic surgery.
  • Travelers with big dental problems not covered by insurance.
  • Travelers who like the idea of combining low-risk medical treatments with a visit to an attractive destination.
  • Travelers willing to gamble on treatments and medications that are not approved or available in the U.S.

If you’re interested, you have lots of destination options. Travel Daily reports that “The only 10 countries that matter for medical tourism” are Mexico, Singapore, India, Malaysia, Israel, Turkey, Brazil, United Arab Emirates (Dubai), Thailand and Czech Republic, but other sources also extol Costa Rica, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. Different countries seem to focus on different specialties: Mexico for dental work, Brazil for cosmetic surgery, Czech Republic for dental, India for eye procedures, Israel for fertility treatments, and such.

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Although I found no hard data, it seems clear that Mexico is the top North American destination. And, because of the excessive violence in such major border cities as Tijuana and Juarez, much of the action has moved to calmer resort areas such as Cancun and Cabo San Lucas. For easy border crossing, the emerging choice seems to be Los Algodones, near Yuma, where one source claims you see more doctor and dentist offices in a four-block area than anywhere else in the world.

Medical tourism promoters tout price examples with “savings” up to 90 percent, compared with current U.S. prices. Even though many of those claims look exaggerated, I get the impression that you really can cut the costs of big-ticket procedures at least in half and often more. Obviously, however, you have to check specific procedures and options to decide how much you can cut your own costs. And figure in transportation and destination accommodation costs.

Clearly, foreign medical treatments add new risks to the usual uncertainties. Among them:

  • You don’t know the individual doctors, their histories and their qualifications.
  • Delayed complications could hit you after you return home, thousands of miles away from the doctors that provided the treatment.
  • Unapproved or unavailable procedures could lead to serious scams, fakery and even life-threatening treatments.
  • Malpractice lawsuits are far more difficult in other countries.

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Obviously, you don’t elect foreign medical treatment without careful study. Start with these sources:

  • TripAdvisor posts forums on medical tourism in many areas.
  • The Wikipedia posts an excellent overview of the practice.
  • Several organizations post extensive information on medical tourism; most also arrange trips or link to agencies than can arrange trips:,,,,,,, and Many claim that they can get the best prices. Many post “price comparisons” that may or not be accurate or even realistic.

As usual, I list these organizations for information only and do not recommend or vouch for any individual agency, nor am I in a position to say whether medical tourism is a “good” idea for any individual. You have to decide for yourself. And, as far as I know, Mr. V.C. hasn’t decided yet what to do about his broken tooth.

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Ed Perkins on Travel is copyright (c) 2015 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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