Medical Tourism: Navigating the Risks and RewardsAug 31, 2023 ● By Sheila Julson
Many Americans have experienced sticker shock upon receiving a medical or dental bill, whether or not they have health insurance. As healthcare costs continue to rise in the United States, patients are grabbing their passports and turning to medical tourism—the act of crossing borders to obtain quality medical care at a lower cost.
“We have a great healthcare system in the United States, but it is priced out of the market for millions of people at the bottom of the economic pyramid,” says Josef Woodman, CEO of Patients Beyond Borders, a medical tourism resource. He estimates that to date, 2.1 to 2.4 million Americans have intentionally crossed borders specifically for medical care. Approximately 65 percent of those people sought complex dental treatments.
The town of Los Algodones, Mexico, located just over the U.S.-Mexico border near Baja California, has approximately 300 dental clinics. Known as “Molar City”, the town is a mecca for people looking for more affordable dentistry. U.S. travelers also head to Costa Rica, Turkey and Thailand for elective cosmetic surgery, bariatrics, infertility treatments, orthopedic medicine, cardiology and cancer care, or to obtain low-cost pharmaceuticals.
Add holistic treatments to the list, says David G. Vequist IV, Ph.D., the founder and director of the Center for Medical Tourism Research at the University of the Incarnate Word, in San Antonio. “People are very interested in how Asian countries naturally combine both alternative and traditional medicine. Philosophies like ‘food as medicine’ are commonly used in treatments there,” says the 15-year scholar of medical tourism trends.
Planning for the Best Outcomes
According to Vequist, “The best Mexican hospitals are using the same standards that we have in the U.S.” In 2009, for example, when Mexico’s General Health Council set out to create national hospital certification standards in their country, officials followed protocols established by Joint Commission International, an influential U.S.-based nonprofit that has served as a global driver of health care quality improvement and patient safety for the past 20 years.
Nevertheless, it is important to understand that complications may arise during a healthcare procedure regardless of where it is performed. Vequist cautions that the farther a patient travels from home, the more likely they will be exposed to bacteria that is unfamiliar to their body. Also, traveling in a pressurized airplane after complex surgical procedures should be avoided, and seeking medical care outside of a patient’s regular care network may break the continuum of care, leading to miscommunication and errors in the transfer of medical records.
“Although global health care isn't for everyone, those who try it will find the quality is the same or better than at home, with modern facilities at a fraction of the cost,” says Paul McTaggart, founder of two specialized travel agencies—Medical Departures and Dental Departures—that help patients become informed about the best and most appropriate clinics and doctors around the world for their medical needs. They also book appointments, forward medical records and make travel arrangements.
McTaggart vets medical providers outside of the U.S. by verifying doctor credentials with local regulatory authorities; measuring web reputations; conducting onsite inspections when possible; posting authentic, patient-verified reviews; removing partners that consistently receive poor reviews; and checking the web for legal and other claims against hospitals or clinics.
Woodman advises that extensive research of foreign hospitals, clinics and providers is crucial for a positive medical-tourism outcome and cautions against making a decision based solely on cost. “There are some bad actors out there that advertise mostly on price to attract U.S. patients. If a clinic advertises that you’ll save 80 or 90 percent off U.S. healthcare prices, be wary—that’s way too high of a discount.”
Other red flags include clinics that are located in strip malls or a lack of verifiable credentials for a provider. “A medical tourist needs to be a little more adaptable and critical of their surroundings,” Woodman says, adding that even if they’ve made the trip, when the circumstances seem off, a patient should never feel pressured to go through with the treatment or procedure.
Jonathan Edelheit, president of the Medical Tourism Association, recommends using healthcare providers that are certified or accredited by international organizations like Global Healthcare Accreditation. “Be careful of trusting any website,” he warns. “Some medical tourism facilitators are middlemen or agencies that receive a commission. Some will refer you to the best provider, but some will refer you to a provider that provides the largest commission, but who isn’t the best.”
Edelheit believes that with proper research and planning, cost-effective, quality health care is possible. He reminds travelers to avoid countries where the U.S. Department of State has issued a travel advisory, and he recommends speaking with several patients that have gone through the same procedure to get a firsthand review and manage expectations. He asserts, “The value you receive and being able to immerse yourself in another culture and integrate a vacation is something that most medical tourists treasure and cherish.”
Sheila Julson is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings.