Doing the numbers on medical tourism – is it worth it?

Carol Lloyd

What with the glories of the new, new economy, it’s easy to imagine consigning “health and fitness” to the ash heap of personal history. Remember when we could afford yoga and Pilates? Or when we didn’t price-shop for vitamins?

During rough economic times, big-ticket treatments not covered by insurance pose an even greater challenge. If you need knee surgery, or back rehab, or God forbid, the dental nightmare my husband faced last year – two crowns, two fillings and two root canals to the tune of $3,700 – it may be time to think selfishly, act globally and consider the benefits of medical travel.

Patients have been crisscrossing the globe in search of better, cheaper and more expedient health care for centuries. Legend has it that ancient Greeks traveled to the coastal city of Epidaurus for cures. Twenty years ago, the phrase “medical tourism” generally evoked images of bargain-basement boob jobs, not state-of-the-art heart surgery. But in the past few years, increasing numbers of Americans (along with Canadians and Europeans weary of long waiting periods) have begun globetrotting for pricey procedures.

With more countries – from Singapore to South Korea – building modern hospitals catering to First-World patients and accreditation organizations vetting them for quality, the industry is developing the standards and protocols that will allow medical tourism to go mainstream.

“For a long time, some people said it was just a fad,” says Melissa Skelton with the Medical Tourism Association, a nonprofit organization that sponsors the Medical Travel Congress and publishes Medical Tourism Magazine. “Now with the economy and the credit crisis, more people are waking up and paying attention.”

Indeed, for the 47 million uninsured Americans, boarding a plane to see the doctor already offers an irresistible two-for-one: travel the world and save money. But if insurance companies and employers embrace and incentivize medical outsourcing, the profile of the medical tourist will change. Joining the armies of un- and under-insured Americans will be fully insured patients who are getting extra perks to cross borders for treatment.

A recent study by Deloitte Center for Health Solutions concluded that the number of Americans traveling for medical care will soar: from 750,000 last year to 6 million in 2010. Although some experts question that prediction, most agree that medical tourism has the potential to transform the way Americans access health care.

“I’m not sure the numbers will rise that fast, but it’s growing,” said Patricia Look, a benefits and compensation analyst with J. J. Keller & Associates, whose recent white paper explored the rise of institution-sponsored medical tourism. In her paper she profiled a handful of early-adopting employers and insurance companies that are offering elements of medical tourism as a part of their health plans. “Institutions are slowly jumping on the bandwagon.”

Not surprisingly, the good doctors at the American Medical Association haven’t issued a ringing endorsement of this medical outsourcing. They rightly caution that a lack of legal recourse in case of medical malpractice and doctor and hospital credentialing makes medical trips potentially dangerous. Yet earlier this year they did issue guidelines suggesting that they know which way the trade winds are blowing. (The guidelines recommend seeking care from accredited hospitals, bringing medical records, learning about legal rights regarding malpractice and understanding the risks of long-distance travel after procedures.) Also, a number of major medical centers – including Duke Medical Center, John Hopkins Medical Center and Columbia University Medical Center – have partnered with international hospitals, indicating a growing awareness that medical tourism is here to stay.

While experts calculate medical tourism’s benefits for institutions, my family’s experience offers testimony of its appeal for individuals. During a recent trip to Costa Rica, my husband got his dental work done for a fraction of the American price – about $950 – paying for the price of the rest of the trip. Encouraged by his gleaming smile, I subjected myself to “Chequeos Medicos Plan B” – one of several preventive health exams offered at CIMA, a brand-new hospital in San José, run by the Dallas-based hospital chain. In six hours, I received a mammogram, full blood work, fecal and urinalysis, cardio stress test, abdominal ultrasound, chest X-rays, eye exam, meeting with an internist, consultation with a nutritionist and breakfast for $397. By my calculations, I would have spent several thousand dollars for the same number of tests and it would have taken no fewer than 10 visits to the doctor spread over weeks or even months.

No trip into any hospital nowadays guarantees a safe return for your body, but some certainly promise a better return on your buck.–

Freelance writer Carol Lloyd is the author of “Creating a Life Worth Living.”

This article appeared on page P – 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle

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