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More Americans Seek Medical Tourism Options Abroad

Posted on Aug 13, 2013 by Ailee Slater ()  | Tags: ACA, global medical costs, Medical Tourism, obamacare, rising health care costs

Medical care in the United States is expensive. The International Federation of Health Plans reports that in 2010, the United States' health spending as percent of GDP was a whopping 17.6 percent - this compared to 11.4 percent in Canada, 10.1 percent in New Zealand and 9.6 percent in the United Kingdom. And health expenditures are only expected to grow; this thanks to expensive technology and drugs, a rise in chronic diseases such as diabetes, and growing administrative costs. What's an average patient to do? If current trends are any indication - go abroad.

The practice of seeking cheaper medical care abroad has existed in the U.S. for some time. Usually, a patient will find a reputable medical tourism company with whom they can arrange to fly to a country such as Mexico or Thailand, where dental care, surgery, and just about every other procedure comes with a low price tag. A 2008 article from Time Magazine entitled "A Brief History of Medical Tourism" explains that since the time of rising medical costs in the 1980s and 1990s, Americans have been looking for cheaper options abroad. In the 21st century, the practice became even more widespread, and from 2006 to 2007, in just one short year, the number of American medical tourists more than quadrupled.

These days, even more people are leaving the U.S. for care, but the really surprising statistic is how many of these medical tourists are heading to countries that, in most respects, are more costly than the United States. At the beginning of August, the New York Times published an article recounting that story of Michael Shopenn, an American man in need of a hip replacement. Upon learning that the surgery and new hip would cost over $100,000 in the United States, we looked into having the procedure performed abroad. Shopenn got in touch with a private hospital in Belgium, and opted to fly into the small European country and have his surgery there. The final cost? $13,660. And that included all medical, airfare and other travel costs.

In June, the New York Times published an intriguing list of health care costs for procedures in the United States versus other first world nations. It listed the average price of an angiogram in Canada as $35 and in the U.S. as $914. An MRI scan in the Netherlands averages $319, whereas that same scan would cost over $1,000 in the United States. A hip replacement in Spain comes in at $7,731, and in the U.S. at over $40,000. Why pay $1,185 for a colonoscopy in the United States when it only costs $655 in Switzerland?

Clearly, cost is a major factor in the rising number of Americans who go abroad for care. Industry groups such as the Medical Tourism Association also say that medical tourism is on the rise due to changing perceptions about the quality of care abroad - whereas in the last century Americans might have been wary of trusting foreign doctors and hospitals, these days, there is a wide perception that good, cheap care can be found in other countries.

And of course, these other countries are becoming aware of the possibilities that American medical tourism can bring. Northern Ireland, for example, is looking into increasing services for foreign medical tourists; hoping that Americans might prefer to come to an English-speaking European country when undergoing a medical procedure. Popular medical tourism destinations are also aware that as U.S. baby boomers age, there may be an influx of Americans interested in more affordable care abroad.

Medical tourism businesses, in the U.S. and around the world, also stand to benefit economically from Americans wary of high in-country costs of care. The group MedRetreat, for example, arranges for North American clients from Canada and the United States to receive care in a network of clinics and hospitals abroad. Testimonies from clients who have been serviced in Malaysia, Turkey, Argentina and more recount the ease and professionalism with which the journey and care were received. MedRetreat offers services such as dental work, sinus surgery, cosmetic procedures and more. Many clients may also be attracted to MedRetreat and similar medical tourism organizations due to the promise of interesting travel and luxury - the idea being that along with receiving affordable medical care, the patient, friends and family can enjoy a little vacation time as well.

As with any medical procedure, services received abroad do have their dangers. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns medical tourists to be aware of counterfeit medication, reused needles and the risks of blood clots when flying soon after surgery. The CDC also reminds would-be medical tourists that miscommunication when receiving care in a foreign country can be a problem. Then again, with help from professional medical tourism organizations, and more and more medical tourism services popping up in first world, English speaking nations, it does seem that these dangers are becoming fewer.

If medical tourism is good for the consumer and good for business in the U.S. and abroad, then certainly the one group not benefitting from this practice is the U.S. health care system. Fewer patients paying into insurance and hospitals amounts to less money in an already-struggling system, and may mean higher costs for everyone in the long run. But then again, if everyone is going abroad to get their care, this may not matter - at least not to the patient.

Doctors and hospitals, on the other hand, may be rightly concerned about the need to lower prices in order to encourage patients to stay in the country for their medical care. And of course, there is the Affordable Care Act to consider - will Obamacare's insurance mandate make patients more likely to stay home and use in-network hospitals? Considering the fact that many medical tourists at the moment already have insurance, there's no reason to believe that the ACA would reduce numbers of Americans seeking treatment abroad. In the end, it seems that until the United States can make genuine changes in health care costs, and slow rapidly rising hospital and drug prices, medical tourism will continue.

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