Medical Tourism: When Americans Seek Care Elsewhere

What Is Medical Tourism?

Medical Tourism is far from being a new concept. The practice of traveling to seek medical care has been going on since the third millennia. But, the definition of medical tourism has slightly changed now that care is so much more accessible. Medical tourism is traveling to another country for treatment or a procedure because of accessibility, quality, and/or affordability. It’s a practice that is growing in popularity every year. Interested in learning more about medical tourism? Here’s the 411 on what you need to know!

Risks of Medical Tourism

As a physician, the list of medical tourism risks is probably flashing in front of your eyes. You are also probably recounting stories you’ve heard or episodes you’ve seen on E!’s Botched. But there are other risks of medical tourism, besides the obvious ones of making an appointment for a surgical procedure in Tijuana.

Naturally, risks are circumstantial and vary depending on the location. Generally, a communication barrier is a common and underestimated risk. Sure there are countless ways to communicate, especially with today’s technology. But, a communication barrier greatly increases the chance of misunderstandings, which is less than ideal before or after a medical procedure. Wouldn’t you agree?

There is also the little matter of antibiotic resistance. A global issue, resistant bacteria, or superbugs, can be less or more common in other countries. Which leads us to the third risk of medication. Americans depend on the approval of the FDA, but that luxury does not exist outside the U.S. So, risks of foreign medication is very real.

Lastly, as you know, the risk of blood clots is always an issue after certain procedures. And those risks only increase when patients without better judgment fly. Obviously, these risks are just the tip of the iceberg.

So, based on the very real and very scary risks of medical tourism, why would any sane human being choose medical tourism? Money, of course.

The Competition

As a medical tourist, the savings can be as great as 90%. As money is one of the greatest motivators, no matter what the language, the mentioned risks are a chance millions are willing to take to receive a procedure at a lower price. In fact, Patients Without Borders predicted that 1.4 million Americans will travel outside the U.S. for medical treatment this year alone. 

Every year the International Federation of Health Plans (IFHP) publishes a report comparing the prices of drugs and specific procedures in the U.S. and other countries. With just a brief look at their 2015 Comparative Price Report, it’s easy to see that medical care in the U.S. is a luxury. Compared to other countries, the U.S. has some competition.

The blood clot-preventing drug, Xarelto, costs an average of $292 in the U.S. but costs less than half that in European countries like the U.K and Spain. It’s generally known that an MRI is a costly procedure that many will not approve of without health insurance. The average price is $1,119, but in Spain, the average is a mere $130. These unbelievable price differences are the foundation of medical tourism. And the reason why millions of Americans are renewing their passports, brushing up on their Spanish, and heading internationally as a medical tourist.


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