Half of travel planning is looking for the right deal. We seek out affordable airfare, car rentals, accommodations, even entertainment. Why not also “shop” for value with your healthcare? Josef Woodman, author of Patients Beyond Borders and healthcare advocate, argues it’s high time to choose to go abroad for some of your medical needs.
Every year, some half-million people travel for medical services. Many go abroad for major surgeries because the price at home is out of reach. But not all medical travelers opt for major medical procedures. They are, instead, what I call “incidental” medical travelers―a community of savvy global healthcare consumers who seek out health screenings and small procedures abroad . They don’t travel specifically for medical care, but they do seize the opportunity, when traveling, to obtain care at a fraction of the at-home price.
The incidental medical traveler is considering procedures that are typically nonemergency, noninvasive, and elective. They entail short recovery times and a low risk of complications. Such procedures give patients a perfect opportunity to do their homework, weigh their options, and snag a bargain at a modern, US-accredited hospital between business meetings or sightseeing tours.
Here, I’ve compiled my list of the top ten no-brainer procedures for the incidental medical traveler. These are procedures that can easily be arranged and performed abroad, often at savings of 50–75 percent.
1. Scanning and Imaging
Nonurgent, diagnostic scans are a clear no-brainer for medical travel. Suppose your local orthopedist has tsk-tsked over your bum shoulder and suggested surgery, but said, “Let’s get an MRI first.” Trouble is, you’re uninsured or your catastrophic coverage plan has a high deductible. That MRI alone is going to cost you $2,000―maybe more. But it won’t if you arrange for your scan overseas. I know one frequent flyer with a torn rotator cuff who did just that. While on a business trip to Thailand, he had an x-ray, MRI, and two consultations with a highly qualified specialist. His total cost: $467.
2. Health Screenings
Preventive medicine is big overseas, and hospitals offer thorough physical exams at discount prices. Medical travelers can select from a list of fixed-price packages or design a customized program with a specialist. Savings versus comparable testing at home can be substantial. At Sime Darby Medical Center in Kuala Lumpur, for example, the digestive tract screening package includes an endoscopy, gastroscopy, colonoscopy, ulcer assessment, and complete report, and totals about $715.
3. Male- and Female-Targeted Health Screenings
Some checkup packages are tailored specifically to age and gender. For example, the “comprehensive woman over 40” package at Joint Commission International (JCI)–accredited Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok includes a physical exam, Pap smear, digital mammogram, chest x-ray, abdominal ultrasound, blood tests, thyroid screen, and eye exam for less than $400. I recently heard from one screening patient: “When I did three tests at home in June, I paid $1,500 out of pocket, and I still haven’t received my results. But at Bumrungrad, I paid $570 for a physical, an MRI, and several follow-up appointments, got my results, and did it all in a span of three days. I’ve never been so happy!”
If the local cost of an eye exam is rising faster than the price of gas, you might want to get your next optometry exam, or even minor eye surgery, while you’re abroad. There are some of the world’s finest eye clinics, including Dunya Eye Hospital in Istanbul and Schroff Eye Hospital in Mumbai. While recovery is quick after many eye operations, a few days or weeks of rest are often recommended. A relaxing post-procedure vacation could be just what the doctor ordered!
Time can rob us of our aural acuity―sometimes without our awareness―so regular hearing checkups are a good idea. These can be very expensive at home. I know―I checked at Duke University near my home and received an estimate of more than $1,600. In Thailand, I had a hearing test and consultation for less than $200. It really pays to shop abroad for brand-name hearing aids at deep discounts, too.
Thousands of patients who vacation or do business in “dental destination” countries―notably Hungary, Costa Rica, and Mexico―work affordable oral care into their travel plans. Experienced dentists who hold certifications from boards in Western countries provide travelers with excellent implants, bridges, and numerous other dental services for a fraction of the at-home cost.
7. Allergy Testing
An allergy evaluation in the States typically costs around $300 for a mere consultation, and then several hundred more for skin and blood tests. Instead, try contacting the International Patient Services Center of hospitals overseas and inquiring about fees. Acibadem International Hospital in Istanbul, for example, specializes in allergy testing at jaw-dropping savings.
8. Affordable Pharmaceuticals
Many international travelers like to purchase their prescription medications less expensively while abroad. It can be smart to do so, especially if you work with a trusted hospital pharmacy. One traveler I know uses a prescription shampoo that costs $47 at home―it’s $6 in Bangkok. But what about carrying medicines home? Although it’s illegal to bring drugs into the US, the overwhelming majority of tourists toting a reasonable amount of pharmaceuticals purchased abroad for personal use re-enter the country without trouble.
9. Cosmetic Dermatology
While you’re out of town, why not rev up your beauty or handsomeness factor―perhaps smooth out wrinkles, tighten pores, banish age spots, or fight cellulite? Numerous medi-spas help their clients do just that. Before trying anything new, be sure to read patients’ testimonials, review before-and-after pictures, and check credentials for both the facility and your doctor. Many physicians abroad are American-accredited or belong to established international associations.
10. Health/Wellness and Alternative Treatments
Alternative treatments―which include homeopathy, acupuncture, Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, and many more non-traditional approaches―may go beyond soothing your mind and body; they may promote your health and wellness. South Korea is especially well known for blending its culture’s traditional therapies with cutting-edge, Western-style medicine.
Josef Woodman is the author of Patients Beyond Borders, the bestselling consumer reference for international health travel, and is a leading advocate of affordable, high-quality medical care for healthcare consumers worldwide.