As deductibles rise and co-pay amounts get higher, the number of people leaving the country to have lower cost surgery elsewhere continues to grow. This “medical tourism” has previously been mostly limited to cosmetic surgery and and dental work that is not generally covered by insurers, but now more and more people are looking for other types of surgeries internationally, either to save costs, find a shorter waiting list or to get access to treatments not approved by the FDA.
In 2016, the average cost of a hip replacement in the USA was $40,364. Compare this to $9,250 in Vietnam or $5,500 in Poland. A USA heart bypass in 2016 had a average cost of $123,000, which is breathtakingly high when judged against the $7,900 average cost of the same surgery in India. Medical tourism has ballooned into a $100 billion industry, but is the lure of cheaper treatment and a possible vacation worth the risk to your health?
Elaina George, MD, an ear, nose and throat specialist and author of Big Medicine: The Cost Of Corporate Control And How Doctors And Patients Working Together Can Rebuild A Better System, told MD Magazine that the majority of patients who go abroad for surgery are those with high deductible insurance or no insurance at all. To her, the increase in medical tourism reflects a broken healthcare system in the United States. George noted that one of the main drivers of hiked US surgery prices that often push patients to medical tourism are facility fees — charges that the patient pays on top of the price of surgery to the hospital where their procedure takes place. Most health care facilities in other countries do not charge their patients these fees.
However the money saved may be counterbalanced by the very real dangers of traveling outside of the US for surgery. There are no international regulations to protect patients who visit another country for medical treatments. There is also risk associated with traveling to a country for surgery where you do not speak the language. It is difficult to communicate your symptoms or to understand your post-operative care instructions in a foreign language. Medication may be counterfeit or of poor quality in some countries without the strict controls we have in the USA.
Antibiotic resistance is a global problem, and resistant bacteria may be more common in other countries than in the United States. In 2016, 21 American women were affected by dangerous and disfiguring mycobacterial infection after obtaining cosmetic surgery in the Dominican Republic.
The risks may be even greater for patients seeking treatments that aren’t approved in the United States. In 2014, several patients who traveled to Germany for intramuscular live stem cell injections from sheep developed Q fever, a difficult disease to diagnose and treat, which presents flu-like symptoms and can be life-threatening.
Some US based hospitals and research facilities are adapting to the current trend by setting up care facilities in other countries such as Singapore and the UAE. Some insurance companies are actually starting to cover care outside the country because it is also cheaper for them.
If you have been considering traveling outside the US for medical care, we encourage you to speak to one of Emerald Coast Medical Association’s fine internal medicine specialists for information and possible options for the surgery you wish to have. Invasive surgery always carries risks, you owe it to yourself to minimize those risks as much as possible. Please click below to view our provider directory and find a doctor who can help you with quality care and guidance.