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Medical Tourism: The Globalization of Healthcare

By on February 26, 2014 in Money

Medical Tourism: The Globalization of HealthcareWith the high cost of healthcare, consumers are looking for various ways to lower the cost while still getting the service that they need. This is taking the form of catastrophic health plans, alternative treatments and even millions of people going without health insurance altogether. In the past few years we‘re also seeing the rise of yet another healthcare phenomenon – medical tourism.

With the globalization of manufacturing, agriculture and finance, it almost follows that a major industry like healthcare would join the ranks soon enough.

Healthcare is going global

Actually, there’s nothing new about medical tourism – however the direction of the flow is what is new. Historically, people from poor countries have gone to wealthy ones in search of the most advanced health care. The flow is reversing today, as it is now people from wealthy countries seeking treatment in less developed areas.

Just as manufacturing firms have moved operations from rich countries to poor ones in search of low-cost labor, healthcare is now stretching around the globe looking for similar cost advantages. Two factors enabling this to happen are the large number of students from poor and developing nations attending medical school in rich countries, and the growth of the Internet as a universal information source.

Why would you do it?

The most basic reason for anyone to go to a third world country for medical treatment is cost. In many poor and developing countries, it’s possible to have major surgery for only a small percentage of the cost the same procedure being done in the US, Canada, Japan, or Western Europe.

But there other reasons that go beyond cost.

Most elective surgery – such as cosmetic surgery, certain dental surgeries, and even hip replacements – are not covered by insurance in the US. But because of the much lower cost overseas, you might elect to make the trip in order to have that surgery.

There may also be treatments, such as fertility treatments or other procedures and therapies that have not been approved in the US or in other rich countries. A couple desperate to have a baby, or a terminal patient looking to participate in experimental procedures, might find a better reception in a poorer country.

Even in countries that have single-payer national health insurance, medical tourism is growing in importance. In such systems, surgeries involving non-life-threatening illnesses and injuries can land you on a waiting list that can last for months or years. Many people the systems seek relief through medical tourism.

How much can you save

A major medical procedure performed in a foreign country may cost less than the deductible and co-payments for the same procedure in the US. For example, a heart bypass operation that would cost over $100,000 in the US, can cost less than $10,000 in India.

In general, poor countries have lower operating costs than the US and other Western countries. In addition, they typically are not subject to the threat of legal action as medical practitioners are in America. Is often possible to have not only a major surgery in a Third World country, but also the cost of transportation and accommodations, for only a fraction of what would cost to do the same surgery at home.

The most popular destinations

The list of what we might call “hot” medical tourism destinations can vary from year to year, and is also largely determined by the type of treatment or surgery. There is no one country that represents a haven for medical tourism, however Mexico, Costa Rica, India, Thailand, Malaysia and South Korea keep coming up on various lists.

Two factors might influence which country you choose to seek medical care in. The first is the quality of care related to specific illnesses, ailments, or injuries that you have. This can vary tremendously from one country to another, then you will want to narrow your choices down to the one, two or three countries that offer the best care for your need.

The second consideration is cost. Even in poor and developing countries, the cost of certain medical care can vary substantially from one country to another. This isn’t to say that you want to look for the lowest cost destination, but more that you want to balance out cost with the quality of care.

Medical tourism is gaining acceptance

As medical tourism becomes more popular it’s also gaining acceptance. There are agencies, commonly called medical tourism providers, who can coordinate your surgery and your travel. They can handle every detail of your trip, often including potential follow-up sources once you are back home.

Payment will typically be in cash since there is no insurance company paying or acting as an intermediary. However in the past few years, a few health insurance providers have dipped a toe into the medical tourism phenomenon. Companies such as Blue Cross Blue Shield of California, Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina, and Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield of Wisconsin have at least experimented with limited participation in medical tourism.

In addition, some independent employers have encouraged the use of medical tourism as a way of reducing health insurance costs. But as a general rule, at this stage of the game you should expect very little assistance from any institutions in the US.

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