Medical Tourism: What Is It, and Is It For You?

Medical Tourism

There are two types of people who travel out of the country to get medical care. Some travel from less-developed countries to more-developed countries to get care; these are usually the wealthy looking for either the best care money can buy—or treatments that are not available in their home countries.

Others, however, travel from developed countries to relatively undeveloped countries to get care. They’re not traveling to get treatments that aren’t provided in their own area—they’re traveling to save money. These types of medical travelers are usually more middle-class than wealthy—and some cannot afford medical care at home because they do not have health insurance.

A whole industry has sprung up in more than fifty different countries around the second type of “medical tourist.” There are even tour operators who specialize in this kind of traveler and offer vacation packages centered around the treatment. However, there are distinct disadvantages as well as benefits to getting the care you need this way.

Why travel to receive medical care?

For medical tourists who travel from more to less developed countries, the principal benefit is cost. Particularly in the US, the cost of medical care can be high—and many people do not have adequate health insurance to cover the expenses.

Middle-class people from the US often find they can afford Cadillac-level treatment in developing countries—for as little as a tenth of what it would cost back home. And sometimes, doctors in India, Thailand, and other places may have earned their medical degrees in a more developed country before returning to their homeland—so travelers don’t feel they’re getting lower-quality care.

In fact, medical tourism has become such a big industry that many countries have invested significantly in their health clinics and hospitals—dramatically improving the level of care medical tourists get. In addition, medical tourists often get a higher level of personalized care, as they are getting Cadillac-level health care services that they’d have to pay hundreds of thousands more for in the US.

But the cost isn’t the only reason to travel for medical care. Some travel to get their care right away, rather than having to wait weeks or months. In addition, medications can be both cheaper and more easily available in developing countries.

The drawbacks of medical tourism—why you should be careful.

One of the downsides of medical tourism is that, if you’re from the US, your health insurance most likely won’t cover it. You’ll have to pay the costs entirely out of pocket, often in cash. However, many people who travel for medical reasons either don’t have health insurance or find that they don’t have adequate coverage for their condition, so you may have been facing a larger bill for medical care at home despite this.

In addition, you may find that in medical travel situations, you don’t get much follow-up care in the country where you’re getting your treatment. This means that you may have to deal with convalescence, physical therapy, and treatment for complications at home. If you live in the US and your health insurance doesn’t cover the treatment, this could be expensive.

The biggest drawback, however, is that there is no overarching body governing the quality of care you receive in other countries. In addition, malpractice laws are uneven and complicated, varying widely depending on the country you’re in—but they’re often weak, so a patient has few options if something goes wrong.

If you are interested in traveling to receive medical care, look for a health care facility accredited by the Joint Commission International (JCI)—a US-based accrediting agency that evaluates health facilities abroad.

Medical tourism can be risky. But every year, thousands of people from the US alone go abroad to get medical care. Research your facility carefully, and look for one that’s accredited by JCI—and you have a better chance of being satisfied with the outcome of your treatment.