Ever considered going to Bangkok for knee surgery? How about Mexico for dental work?
Peter recently chatted with Josef Woodman, the author of Patients Beyond Borders, a guide to medical tourism, about the trend of traveling abroad for affordable health care.
Josef Woodman: Medical tourism is booming in certain areas, particularly expensive, invasive surgeries where the U.S. has priced itself out of the health care market, even despite some of the recent health care reform.
Peter Greenberg: It’s interesting to me because we’re not talking about somebody getting a breast implant or liposuction, although that is part of it I suppose. We can laugh about some of the wild things that some of the travel organizers are doing. I mean, there was a travel agency in Los Angeles at one point that was selling a breast implant and tango package to Argentina. I just hope they did the tango before they did the breast implants because it would be painful otherwise. But we’re not really talking about that. We’re talking about some serious stuff, aren’t we?
JW: Yes, you’re talking about expensive hip surgery that might cost a U.S. health care consumer $65,000. Or a heart surgery that could cost upwards of $100,000 that you can get 70 percent to 90 percent discount in American accredited hospitals overseas.
PG: You mention the word “accredited,” and I think that’s really important, because I’ve been over seas to Bangkok in doing this story on medical tourism. When I did the first story we focused on India, Thailand, South America, and Mexico. In Thailand there is a hospital in Bangkok that is so state-of-the-art, that is so brilliantly clean and lovely it would rival most five-star hotels.
JW: Oh, absolutely. That’s Bumrungrad in Bangkok.
PG: Yes it is. Named for the King.
JW: There are probably 200 hospitals all over the world that are accredited by the Joint Commission International.
PG: Now you mention accreditation. Accreditation is a relatively new phenomenon in the world of medical tourism, isn’t it?
JW: The international accreditation is, and people—even in Europe and Asia—look to American standards. And the JCI, the same agency that accredits the Harvards and the Mayo Clinics of the world, are also accrediting hospitals globally. They’ve been doing it for 10 years, and now there’s more 300 JCI-accredited, American-accredited hospitals around the globe offering every procedure you can think of.
PG: We’re not just talking about hip replacements or heart bypasses, we’re also talking dental. One of the pieces that we did on medical tourism focused on Mexico in a small town in Mexico right across the border from Yuma, Arizona called Algodones. It has the title, “The Town of Dentists,” and they’re not kidding. There are as many as 300 dentists there, most of them by the way trained, guess where? In the United States.
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JW: Trained in the United States, just across the border.
PG: Every day between, let’s say November and March, you will see up to 15,000 Americans literally park their car at the border and walk across to have their dental work done. I know when I go to see my dentist and they have to do an impression, or do a crown, you have to come back a later, whenever the lab comes back. That doesn’t happen in Mexico. You walk across the border, they do what they need to do, they say, “Hey, listen go have lunch, come back in two hours,” and it’s done.
JW: They’re incredibly efficient. The costs are down. They’ve got their own internal laboratories. My first panoramic X-ray was done in Costa Rica, in-house three years ago. This year in Raleigh, North Carolina I couldn’t send my records because they had to have film that they wanted to courier to me via FedEx.
PG: Well I love to FedEx my bags, I don’t think I would FedEx my X-rays. Hey, here’s a question for you, and it really gets into the costs comparisons that you talk about are pretty substantial. What does a hip replacement cost in India versus Indiana?
JW: Well, it does depend on the country. But in general, a hip replacement might cost $65,000 in Nebraska, and you would expect to pay $9,000 to $12,000 in Delhi or Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, or a little bit more in Singapore, where the cost of living is higher. As for cardiac, where a bypass might cost you $100,000 in the United States, believe it or not, it is $12,000-$14,000 in Bumrungrad in Thailand, or at Severance Hospital in Seoul.
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PG: When you make a decision like this, I think you have to take into account how much time you want to devote to the trip. You can’t just fly over to India, have the hip replacement, and come home. The real key here is aftercare, isn’t it?
JW: It is. Aftercare not only when you’re in country to recuperate, but when you come home, and there are some very important rules to follow that can ensure a successful trip.
PG: Most people don’t realize that. The bottom line is we call it medical tourism for a reason. People want to go overseas because of cost, of course, and because of quality of care. But also, if you don’t have the aftercare you’re potentially giving yourself more problems than you had before you left.
JW: That’s right. And most of the hospitals really take care of you. First of all, the hospitals overseas tend to be more in-patient friendly. They’re not trying to hustle you out of the rooms, so you can stay longer. And most hospitals have partnerships. These JCI-accredited hospitals have partnerships with these five- and seven-star hotels. For example, the Connerama in Chennai is a beautiful Taj hotel 25 km down the road from the hospital. I’m not saying you have to take a vacation, but there’s no reason not to recuperate in a nice environment. You’re right on the coast; they have interns that come and help you with your wound management, and your prescriptions, and your physical therapy. So there’s a lot of synergy that you don’t see in the United States.
PG: Now the big, bad question of course which is on everybody’s mind is: health insurance. Are there insurance companies now that are going to cover you for procedures like this abroad?
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JW: Not yet. The United Health Cares, the Sigmas and the Aetnas of the world paid all their pilgrimages to these international hospitals, and were impressed by them. And then they got hit in the face with all this health care reform. It’s coming, there is no doubt about it. There are some employer plans out there, but there are a lot of politics to get through. So for now the health care consumer who has a condition that needs to be addressed is going to have to rely on referrals, on the Web, and on their own investigation to get the job done.
PG: But at the end of the day the cost differential is so great that it still makes a lot of sense for a lot of people.
JW: It does for the right person. For the people that have the pluck, and the trust, and the confidence in themselves to take that trip, and the ability to do some of the research, it’s out there. It’s really all about patients’ choice, and helping global competition. And if a patient can find quality affordable care without having to travel across half the planet: all to the good. But there’s a reason that 400,000 travelers are taking off and boarding planes every year out of the United States. There’s a lot of cost savings, and a lot of quality out there.
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PG: The very first time I heard the phrase “medical tourism,” it was applied to Steve McQueen. He went across the border to Mexico in desperate search for a cure for his cancer with experimental treatments at some Mexican hospital. That’s the first time we learned about people going overseas to try and get cured.
JW: Yes, and there is Angelina Jolie with her kids. And more locally, one of the medical tourism stories of the year was a domestic story, with Steve Jobs heading from California to Tennessee for a liver transplant. It was very quiet, but think about that, and why somebody like him did that. Or why Edward Kennedy went from Harvard to Duke. It’s all about quality of care; not so much about cost. More and more with specialization becoming so important, people are going to be boarding planes, and heading out for higher-quality care as well. Especially if the care in the United States continues to deteriorate which I believe it will.
PG: And of course, up until about maybe about five years ago, the examples that you gave would be the people who had the financial means at their disposal to make those trips, and to make those choices, and now it’s just the opposite. You’re able to go because the cost is lower.
JW: Right, because medical tourism used to be all about luxury travel; folks heading out of Beverly Hills for cosmetic surgery. Now it’s really, in the United States particular, about cost, cost, cost. It has become very democratized by the availability of all these American-accredited hospitals from Mexico and Costa Rica, down to Brazil, over to Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia.
PG: Now are there employers that are offering financial incentives to encourage their workers to consider domestic medical travel?
JW: There are. There are, but very few of them want to talk about it mostly because of the politics, and because of some of the liability issues involved.
By Peter Greenberg for Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio.
Related links on PeterGreenberg.com:
- How To Be A Medical Tourist
- Hotels With Medical Concierge Services
- Traveling With All Kinds of Allergies Abroad
- Travel Health & Fitness section
- Hotels That Help Sick Travelers
- Traveling With a Medical Condition
- Travel Tip: Accessible Medical Records on the Road
- Peter Greenberg Worldwide Radio