X-ray hanging in window

The Rise of Medical Tourism: Shopping the World for Medical Procedure Bargains

Travel around the world being easier and cheaper has a number of interesting consequences. One is that Germans might take a vacation in the Czech Republic to get breast implants or an American heads to Costa Rica for a hip replacement. These situations and many more form medical tourism, a growing cottage industry and new reason for many people to travel.

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I’ve never traveled anywhere to have a medical procedure done. In fact, I think I’m probably something of a medical coward and try my best to avoid needing medical treatment in another country at all. But I can understand why some people choose to head to another country for medical treatment: it is usually cheaper, the quality can be as good or better than at home, there could be a very minimal waiting list and on top of it all — you can start off with a bit of a holiday first.

X-ray hanging in window
© Nikko Russano

Why Medical Tourism is Booming

Obviously, it’s nearly always people from more affluent countries who head to a slightly less affluent country to get some medical procedure done. A number of otherwise wealthy Western nations have health care systems that are really starting to struggle, so patients from the United States or the United Kingdom are increasingly tempted to travel to Latin America, eastern Europe or Asia for elective surgery and other medical treatments.

This avoids problems of insurance not covering treatment in your home country, when it’s often cheaper to just pay the full cost in another country. It can also help speed up the time it takes to get treatment when your home country has long waiting lists for non-critical surgery or elective procedures.

What Op Where?

Particular countries are getting reputations for particular types of medical treatment. Here’s a sample of which destinations are targets for medical tourists:

  • Colombia has highly skilled medical staff but low salaries, so it has been a popular destination for a long time for people wanting cosmetic surgery, eye operations, cardiovascular surgery and even transplants — because donated organs there are even available to foreigners.
  • Hungary is a good place to go for dental treatment, where the dentists are extremely well trained and procedures would cost about 30% of what a British person would have to pay at home.
  • India also has good training but low labor costs, and US citizens regularly fly there for heart surgery and other high-end operations.
  • Thailand is so proficient at medical tourism that several hospitals have special wings for foreigners and numerous translators, and travelers from Asia, Australia and further afield flock there for pretty much any kind of medical treatment you can imagine.
  • Costa Rica is a popular spot for Americans to get dental treatment (it’s 80% cheaper than in the US), and orthopedic surgery like getting a knee replacement, as well as cosmetic surgery, is also common.
  • The Czech Republic is well-located for Western Europeans to visit for surgeries, and cosmetic surgeries including breast enlargements are popular here, as they’re still considerably cheaper than in the western neighbors.
  • Mexico, being nice and close to the United States, is also popular for dental treatment, and was long a destination of choice for patients wanting lap band surgery to help them lose weight.

Hospital Corridor
Hospital Corridor, Santander © yosoyjulito

But There Are Cons To Medical Tourism Too

If it was all such a great idea, we would all be adding some medical treatment on to the end of our regular overseas vacation. Obviously, not everyone believes it’s such a great idea.

As with any medical treatment or surgery, there are risks. When you’re in a foreign country, the risks become a little bit higher, because apart from anything else you’ll have to travel back to your own country, often shortly after surgery.

If you pick the wrong hospital or not the best doctor, things can go terribly wrong. There are horror tales around of people who’ve traveled to another country for cosmetic surgery — and probably paid a real “bargain” price for it — and have ended up having to have the surgery re-done in their home country, at a considerably higher price and often with lasting side effects or scars. Legally, you probably have little recourse to get any compensation from doctors who botch your surgery if it’s done in a country where the laws are less protective of patients.

On top of all that, there’s the risk of picking up a local infectious disease — one that regular locals have simply built up immunity for over time, but you as a foreigner are really susceptible to, especially if you’re getting medical treatment or having surgery.

Would You Be A Medical Tourist?

It depends, of course. For me, it’s definitely not something I’m keen on. The only aspect that attracts me is that it can be a good excuse to have a holiday in a foreign country; I just don’t want the operation or procedure that goes with it.

For anyone who’s seriously considering being a medical tourist, the experts all agree on one thing: do your research really well. Talk to people who’ve had procedures at the hospital or with the doctor you want, and check that everything goes as smoothly as it should. Don’t go for the absolute cheapest option — your health is worth more than money.

Anyone already done some medical tourism or considering it? Would you consider it if you needed a particular operation? Tell us about it in the comments.

  1. From one vagabond and blogger and writer to another — nice job with the medical tourism and travel roundup.

    Among other countries … I might want to add Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore to your list of “top tier” destinations.

    Maybe we’ll run into each other someday … hopefully, not in a hospital. Hope the novel is going well. :-)

    Jeff Schult
    Author, Beauty from Afar
    Moderator, The Bridge

  2. Because I don’t have health insurance in the US and because I live in Mexico part-time and have residency here, I am considering have dental work and a regular physical here.

    To your list of countries popular for medical tourism, I’d add Cuba. With some of the best trained doctors in the world (albeit working with limited and outdated equipment) and some of the lowest prices, the medical tourism industry in Cuba is booming.

  3. I had dental work done when I lived in Thailand. It was OK but a lot of people, especially Arabs, come there for health care and medical tourism, like plastic surgery. It’s big business. Argentina is a big place too for plastic surgery…everyone there gets work done. It’s sometimes a birthday give!!!

  4. Hmmm, with my US dental insurance only covering 25% of a 800 dollar root canal I might be headed to Mexico soon. Thanks Amanda !

  5. Thanks for tip, Amanda. Researching is the key in dental tourism. To fly back thousand miles because of toothache is not so pleasant. So try to be very careful.

    In any case, there are more good dental treatments than bad, but bad news spread two times faster, you know…

    Enjoy dental tourism, enjoy dental and enjoy tourism ;)

  6. Yep, plastic surgery and sex-change operations do seem to be big business for medical travel – the kinds of things that are definitely elective surgery and very expensive to get done in many countries. Thanks for the extra tips, Julie, Matt and Gizelle. And I hope you find a good dentist, Chris!

  7. Barbados also attracts medical tourists. Though we’ve got good dentists and plastic surgeons, what’s best known is the Barbados Fertility Clinic. It’s highly rated, and so is the vacation that comes with it.

  8. Last time I was in Bangkok, I notice a lot of teeth whiting dentists near the Khao San Road. Also, there was one in the Siam Centre as well a shop for botox injections. I don’t know the cost difference is but they must be attracting tourists as they’re advertising in English.
    I wished I went into the botox shop to find out more.

    I just checked my Bangkok map and there are two adverts for teeth whiting on it – big business in Thailand

  9. Problem is finding the right location for treatment. Last year I had to get root canal treatment done. In US it would have cost me upwards of $1000. After checking with colleagues in India and reading up on eMedispace.com I got this done in India during a business trip for under $100. I would highly recommend it if you are visiting India for business. I got it done in Wockhardt Hospitals, Bangalore. Treatments in these countries works out cheaper and you can always combine with a vacation.

  10. In Canada it is now possible to purchase medical procedure insurance packaged with regular travel insurance, for treatment at JCI accredited centers. The cost varies with the procedure. It is available through travel agents.

  11. Going to Budapest on friday! Dental work for my wife. Her 2nd visit. She liked it so much she wants to show me around. the clinic is in the hotel (special deal) and they are sending a driver to pick us up at the airport. The savings (bridge crown) will pay for the trip. We have the best med system in the world? Really? ha ha Best insurance companies is what we got!

    Ed Z

  12. There are a number of trends that suggest medical tourism will not only boom, but become commonplace: 1) 1 million lost insurance in the past year, there are now 50 million uninsured in the US and another 20 million underinsurced

    2) the income gains made in the past decade are less than the increases in health care costs, meaning people *with* insurance have less money available for health care

    3) medical device companies are routinely launching in Mexico and Europe,

    4) adult stem cell innovation is taking place abroad

    5) employers costs to insure employees has risen sharply

    There are as many or more excellent options abroad as there are in the US. While being informed is of course desirable, it isn’t difficult at all to identify great options for medical, surgical and dental care in Costa Rica, Colombia, Mexico, South Korea, the Philippines, India, Panama, Mauritius, and Spain.

    I work for Health Travel Technologies, we provide the business operations platform for “health care in the cloud” to many international doctors and hospitals – domestic too within the US. We’re seeing stem cells and medical device makers really have an impact on seeking treatment abroad. IVF too!

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