Health & Beauty | July 2007
|Borders Are No Barrier to Affordable Healthcare|
Chris Taylor - LATimes
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When David Woodman announced he was going to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, for major dental work, his son Josef thought his dad had lost his mind. He had visions of untrained dentists burrowing into his father's mouth, clutching fistfuls of rusty needles.
So the younger Woodman tagged along to make sure his father would not fall victim to foreign quackery. "Instead of what I feared, he got a board-trained dentist in a great clinic, with state-of-the-art instruments and panoramic X-rays," says Woodman, who was so impressed that he ended up researching and writing the book "Patients Beyond Borders" on the phenomenon of medical tourism. "And he saved $11,000 on a mouthful of teeth."
Woodman's father is not alone in looking abroad for a medical overhaul. After all, if the American healthcare system is not completely broken, it is certainly dysfunctional: 47 million people have no health coverage, and 130 million have no dental insurance. As baby boomers age into more medical problems with spotty coverage, and would prefer not to deplete their retirement savings, they are looking at all available options.
Countries such as India, Thailand, Mexico, Costa Rica, Malaysia and Singapore cater to well-heeled foreigners. In fact about 150,000 Americans a year go abroad to have medical work done and the industry is growing by about 15% to 20% annually. The quality of care in top hospitals is said to beat most American hospitals, while providing savings of 30% to 80%. In fact, in 10 to 15 years, "the best offshore hospitals will routinely be included in networks offered to insured Americans," predicts Arnold Milstein, chief physician for the consulting firm Mercer Health & Benefits.
Not that medical tourism is a worry-free venture. From the training of foreign doctors and the conditions of far-flung facilities, to the legal limbo should something go awry, to the wisdom of getting on long-haul flights after major surgery, there are troubling questions to consider. But when patients are facing a major operation — a hip replacement, say, that could cost from $55,000 to $85,000 stateside — it seems that more Americans are proving able to get beyond their doubts.
"Many people just can't afford the procedures here in the U.S. and the value overseas is so much greater," says Patrick Marsek, managing director of Chicago-based MedRetreat, which is facilitating 650 overseas surgeries for clients this year. Although historically most Americans have gone abroad for dental or cosmetic work, he says, it is now extending to other areas — hip and knee replacements, heart surgery and hysterectomies.
There is now a cottage industry growing up around medical tourism, led by companies such as MedRetreat and Planet Hospital. Not just in the U.S., but in countries with creaky national-health systems such as Britain, where lengthy waiting lists for nonemergency surgery have spurred many to look abroad. "Now you can buy a travel package where they'll literally handle everything for you," says David Hancock, author of the newly published guide "The Complete Medical Tourist."
"They pick you up at your front door, take you to the airport, fly you in and accompany you to all clinical visits and operations. Then you're off to a five-star hotel to recuperate for two weeks before flying you back and getting a private car back home. And it all comes in at half of what it would be at a private hospital in the U.K.," Hancock says.
As Josef Woodman discovered, the steep discounts are not because of ramshackle venues and dodgy doctors. Bumrungrad Hospital in Bangkok, for instance — which caters to an estimated 400,000 foreigners a year — is known for its marble floors and luxury amenities that make it look more like a resort hotel than a healthcare facility. "When I returned from my tour of 20 hospitals overseas, I showed my son the slides, and he kept asking if they were photos of my hotel," Woodman says. "In fact they were all pictures of the wards. Often they're not just as nice as American hospitals — they're three times as nice."
Although India and Thailand tend to get the lion's share of attention for medical tourism, Woodman suggests Singapore. It is ranked sixth in the world for healthcare by the World Health Organization and houses a facility allied with the legendary American institution Johns Hopkins. Singapore might cost you about 20% more than what you would find in India or Thailand, but it is still roughly half the cost of procedures in the U.S.