WASHINGTON -- The emergence of medical centers in Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe that provide state-of-the-art procedures with a human touch and a gentle price tag has many U.S. citizens flying abroad to seek care they might have gotten at their local hospitals.
Medical travel--don't call it medical tourism anymore--has increased rapidly in recent years. In principle, there's nothing really new about it. For years, wealthy individuals from all over the world have flown to the United States or Western Europe for advanced procedures not available at home.
What is new is the ease of medical travel, the numbers of people getting treated away from home, and the direction: away from the United States and toward Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America.
Last year, roughly 150,000 Americans headed overseas for surgical procedures, estimated Josef Woodward, author of "Patients Without Borders: Everybody's Guide to Affordable, World-Class Medical Tourism" (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Healthy Travel Media, 2007) the first, but surely not the last, popular book on the subject. His estimate is conservative: some observers put the number at closer to half a million.
Roughly 60,000 Americans have sought care at Bumrungrad International in Bangkok, widely recognized as one of Asia's leading hospitals, according to Curtis Schroeder, group CEO of Bumrungrad.
"Why travel to a hospital you can't even pronounce, in a country you've never visited, with doctors who have strange names you can't spell? There are several reasons: geopolitical factors; economic crises; lack of access to care, which is especially true for uninsured Americans or people from Western Europe who do not want to wait for services provided through their national health care systems; perceived lack of quality of care in their home countries; and family microeconomics," said Mr. Schroeder, who previously was with Tenet Healthcare Systems, opening Tenet hospitals in several different countries.
Health care abroad is an appealing option for moderate-income Americans who are not insured. But even those with insurance are feeling the pinch and looking overseas. Mr. Schroeder cited a Time magazine survey indicating that 61% of uninsured Americans polled would travel 10,000 miles if they knew they could save $5,000 on a major medical procedure. Among those with insurance, the number was 40%.
"These are the first wave of medical tourists," he said.
U.S. Standards ... Better
According to Ori Karev, head of United-HealthGroup's Ovations program to improve health in people over age 50 years, there are 110 hospitals around the world accredited by the Joint Commission International, that provide as good if not better quality health care than what is available at top U.S. hospitals. JCI uses the same criteria as the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO), and serves the same general purpose.
JCI-accredited hospitals, many of which are run as joint government-private sector partnerships provide services at far lower cost than U.S. hospitals. And American- or European-trained clinicians at JCI-accredited hospitals are performing cardiovascular surgery, organ transplants, and hip and knee replacements with outcomes equivalent to any U.S. center and adverse event rates comparable with or even substantially lower than at U.S. hospitals.
Mr. Woodward estimates Americans traveling for health care can expect to save between 15% and 85% on the cost of equivalent care in the United States. Savings vary widely with the type of procedure, the country visited, and any add-ons such as vacation time. But for most major procedures the savings are massive. (See box.)
Brazil, Costa Rica, and South Africa currently are hot destinations for cosmetic procedures; Costa Rica, Mexico, and Hungary are magnets for good, affordable dentistry, and India, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore are the best choices for major surgeries, including heart surgeries, organ transplants, and orthopedics, according to Mr. …