by Joseph Gustaitis
Gary Hulmes, the manager of a Florida furniture store, had chronic pain in his back. He needed spinal surgery, but he didn’t have health insurance and was looking at medical costs that probably would have run somewhere between $36,000 and $50,000. What could he do? In the spring of 2006 he got in touch with a travel company that arranged for him to go to India for three weeks to have the surgery done there instead of at home. He stayed at a New Delhi hospital for five days, had a successful operation, and did a little sightseeing on the side. The cost: $9,000 (plus $295 to the company that helped him plan the trip).
A few months before Hulmes’s journey, an Oregon woman named Betty Meisel also traveled abroad to get medical care. She wanted some plastic surgery but didn’t care to pay the $20,000 it would have cost her in the United States. She went to Thailand instead. When she returned home and had the bandages removed, she said that her eyes “looked like a cross between a bloodhound and a Shar-Pei. . . . I didn’t want anyone to see me.”
The success story of Gary Hulmes, reported in The New York Times, and the unfortunate experience of Betty Meisel, described in The Washington Post, represent the two sides of a growing phenomenon called “medical tourism.” Medical tourism is the practice of traveling abroad to receive medical care. For many years the United States has been a recipient of medical tourism, with people traveling here for advanced procedures not available in their home countries. Now there is a corresponding flow in the other direction, as Americans go abroad for procedures that would be much more expensive or are not available in the United States. For these people, medical tourism usually involves significant and costly surgery. In some cases, the people who go abroad are very ill and seek treatment as a last resort. But people also travel for less serious procedures, such as Botox injections or even dental work.
The savings from medical tourism can be sizeable. Some procedures can cost up to 80% less overseas than they would in the United States. Though reliable numbers are hard to come by, it has been estimated that a heart bypass operation that costs $130,000 in the United States can run to about $10,000 at a hospital in India. A hip replacement operation that costs $43,000 in the United States might cost $12,000 in Singapore. And a gallbladder removal can cost 50% less in a foreign hospital, even when figuring in the cost of a recuperative period spent in a luxury hotel. One person who went to India for hip and knee replacement spent $23,000 for the surgery. The other travel expenses, including airfare, added some $5,000 to the tab. But compared with the $125,000 or more he might have had to spend in the United States, it was a bargain.
It’s not surprising that savings like those described above draw people to distant lands. The American Medical Association (AMA) acknowledges that the rising cost of health care in the United States “puts needed health care out of reach for many, particularly those without health-care coverage.” It’s difficult to calculate the number of US citizens who travel abroad for medical care. The AMA estimates that about 150,000 Americans received health care overseas in 2006, and that number has certainly grown since then. Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand, one of the major world centers for medical tourism, says that it treated 55,000 Americans in 2005, a 30% increase from the year before. About 83% of the procedures were noncosmetic.
Many hospitals like Bumrungrad that cater to medical tourists are new and staffed with English-speaking physicians and nurses trained in the United States. And many of them attempt to create a luxurious, spa-like atmosphere, combining the benefits of medical travel with those of a traditional vacation. Bumrungrad, which likes to explain that its name translates as “care for the people,” encourages its patients to enjoy the nearby beaches and take in the sights of Thailand. Another Thai facility, Phuket International Hospital, is even more direct, advertising “bright sun, blue sea, cosmetic surgery.” Wockhardt Hospital in India promotes its air-conditioned private rooms with computers and high-speed Internet, color televisions with DVD players, sofa beds for companions, and room service. And facilities combining medical care with spa pampering are becoming a specialty in Singapore, which is avidly reaching out to international customers.
But medical tourism is not confined to only a few places. Many hospitals throughout the world are realizing the benefits of establishing similar services for foreign patients. Medical facilities are being or have been developed in, among other places, Costa Rica, Brazil, Mexico, Malaysia, Hungary, Argentina, South Korea, Turkey, the Philippines, South Africa, and Dubai. They are often aided by governments that deliberately promote medical tourism. Singapore alone hopes to attract one million medical tourists by 2012.
Last Reviewed on July 11, 2012
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