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Overseas Medical or Dental Travel: Still a Good Idea?

Despite all the current media attention to health care, many travelers remain uncertain about the pluses and minuses of looking for medical and dental treatments overseas. One reader put it, simply:

“Should Americans still consider overseas medical and dental trips to foreign countries?”

My short answer is about the same as the last time I looked at medical travel: “You can still find considerably lower costs for many procedures outside the U.S., including many that no new insurance program will cover. Whether you think it’s a ‘good’ idea depends on your assessment of the various tradeoffs involved.”

Who Goes, and for What

Depending on where you look, you can figure close to a million Americans—give or take a few hundred thousand—travel to some other country for medical reasons. The basic reason is that medical costs are much lower in much of the world than in the U.S. As far as I can tell, medical tourists are seeking several different objectives:

  • Travelers without health insurance obviously look for low costs—lower costs can sometimes be a matter of life or death. Presumably, expanded health coverage at home will decrease this segment of the market in coming years.
  • Even travelers with health insurance seek elective procedures that their policies don’t cover at all, or they need covered procedures that exceed their maximum benefits, or they want to avoid waiting periods.
  • Some travelers look overseas for untested and possibly controversial procedures not covered by insurance, or for faster access to transplants.
  • Lots of travelers look for all sorts of expensive dental work, because even with good health insurance they have no dental coverage.
  • Some travelers who don’t really have to go overseas may like the idea of medical or dental procedures as an excuse to take a two to four week vacation in some exotic spot.

Cost Differences

The websites promoting medical tourism show sample prices with “savings” up to 90 percent, compared with current U.S. prices. I find some of those claims are a bit exaggerated: I pay less for dental work here, for example, than what the sites cites as “typical” or “average,” and the figures for medical services also seem puffed a bit. Still, I found typical prices for dental services around $350-$600 for a crown, $700-$1,200 for a full denture, and $2,000-$3,000 for an implant. Those prices are well under what I would pay locally.

Although the cost spread has narrowed a bit since my last report, I’d guess that you could cut the costs of major medical and dental work by somewhere around 50 percent, at least, and maybe more for some procedures. The only way to decide for sure is to compare specifics for your individual situation.

Major Medical Destinations

Although dozens of countries around the world pitch their medical services, four general regions seem to be of greatest interest to Americans:

  • Nearby Mexico and Central America apparently get a lot of the dental business—prices are good and travel is easy and inexpensive.
  • Eastern Europe—especially the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland—have reputations for a combination of good facilities and low costs for both medical and dental work.
  • Southeast Asia may be the major area for medical and dental tourism, notably India, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand. Thailand, especially, has developed large facilities specifically aimed at medical tourists.
  • South America, where Argentina and Colombia have developed reputations for outstanding cosmetic surgery.
  • Other countries touting their medical expertise range from Turkey to New Zealand.

For the most part, these are countries that enjoy either generally good overall health care or countries that have established hospitals and clinics aimed at international medical tourists. In any case, at least in the claims they make, those facilities are staffed by experienced personnel and use the most modern technologies.

Pluses and Minuses

Americans seem to be more comfortable going overseas for problems that aren’t life-threatening: elective surgery, cosmetic treatments, and dental work. Clearly, medical treatments overseas add new risks to the usual uncertainties. Among them:

  • You don’t know the individual doctors, their histories, and their qualifications, and they don’t know your medical history.
  • Delayed complications could hit you thousands of miles away from the doctors that provided the treatment, and you run some circulatory risks on long flights immediately after surgeries.
  • Malpractice lawsuits are far more difficult in other countries—a major cost advantage that could turn into a major problem if you happen to become a victim.

General Information

You can find quite a bit of information about medical tourism, in general, and country-specific information on clinics, doctors, and prices. As is usually the case, websites are among your best sources for extensive information:

Possibly the most useful place to start is All Medical Tourism, which features an interactive worldwide listing of procedures, countries, and estimated prices; it even lists “top picks” for some procedures. Hungary and Costa Rica, for example, are top picks for dental crowns.

  • British-based RevaHealth also covers much of the world, with “star” ratings assigned to individual clinics based on reader feedback—sort of a TripAdvisor for medical tourism.
  • Healthtravel Guides is another useful site, especially for Latin America.
  • Wikipedia contains an extensive discussion of medical tourism and a less extensive companion piece on dental tourism.

Author Josef Woodman has updated the printed guidebook I cited last time, Patients Beyond Borders. It provides a worldwide overview of medical and dental facilities that cater to Americans. If you have an idea where you want to go, Woodman recently introduced individual-country guides to medical tourism in Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, and Turkey, with even more detail. As with any printed volumes, price data become outdated quickly, but these are all new books and should be fairly current. They’re a “must” for anyone considering medical traveling.

Package Arrangements

Several outfits sell complete medical-trip packages, including locating doctors, arranging accommodations, and arranging air travel. Among them:

The packagers emphasize that by screening doctors and facilities they can select the best option for your trip. They also claim that they can get the best prices.

Buyers’ Guide

Your first step should always be to do your homework: Look at the websites and books; ask around among your friends or co-workers; and raise the question with your primary care doctor or dentist.

Get as firm a cost estimate as you can, factor in the transportation and accommodations costs and how long you’d be away, and figure out how much you can cut your costs.

I can’t possibly say whether medical tourism is a “good” idea for any individual; I have no personal experience with medical tourism. At best, I can provide basic information to help you decide for yourself.

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