Medical Tourism: What You Need To Know

Medical tourism—the terms literally mean “travel to seek health care”. While foreign nationals have been visiting the U.S. to take advantage of the top-notch medical institutions in this country, the last 10-12 years have seen a large number of Americans visit other countries for care. The number has grown dramatically, from 750,000 in 2007 to 1.4 million in 2017. The global medical tourism business is valued at $439 billion annually.

Why Do People Visit Other Countries for Treatment?

The reasons for seeking care in another country may vary based on the person and the care they seek.

  •  It might simply be because the cost of treatment and/or hospitalization is cheaper abroad. Research has shown that the cost of care may be 30-65% lower in some other countries compared to the U.S.
    • A government survey found that between 0.2-0.6% of outbound U.S. air travel is related to health care
    • South America is the biggest destination, followed by the Caribbean and then Europe
  • Immigrants may want to return to their home country to receive care from a trusted health care provider
  • Certain treatments might be available or may only be approved in that country
  • Wait times for certain procedures may be shorter in other countries

Where Do People Go for Care?

Globally, the most common destination countries for medical tourism are (not in order):

  • Costa Rica
  • India
  • Malaysia
  • Mexico
  • Singapore
  • South Korea
  • Taiwan
  • Thailand
  • Turkey
  • United States

The most commonly treated conditions include:

  • Dentistry
  • Cosmetic surgery
  • Cardiac conditions
  • In vitro fertility
  • Weight loss
  • Dermatology
  • Liver, kidney transplants
  • Spine surgery

Providing services related to medical tourism has now become a business sector and several companies have emerged that provide a complete package of travel and treatment.*

  • Indus Health’s package includes cost of medical care, passport and visa services, air travel, local hotel stay and commute, and even meals for the patient and a companion. Indus Health works with large employer groups.
  •  MedRetreat advertises affordable dental, cosmetic, and general medical procedures in foreign nations.

CDC Advice for Before and After Travel

The Centers for Disease Prevention & Control (CDC) has some cautionary advice for those who seek care abroad, with the intent of minimizing associated risks:

  • Confirm the qualifications of the health care providers providing care and credentials of the facility where care will be delivered. While foreign standards may be different than in the U.S., it might be wise to cross-check if those facilities meet standards recommended by accreditation groups in the U.S.:
  • Have a written agreement of the planned treatment with the facility where care will be provided. This should include detail for the price you are being charged:
    • What specific treatment(s) will be provided
    • What supplies will be used
    • Follow-up care that will be provided
  • Consult with a travel medicine provider a few weeks prior to the trip to discuss specific risks regarding the procedure, and travel before and after the procedure
  • Inform your health care provider at home about your plans and confirm their availability for any follow-up care after returning home
  • Make sure your current medical conditions are under control and remember to carry your medical records with you, including
    • Information on any allergies you may have
    • Details on all the medicines you take, including non-prescription drugs
  • Ensure the foreign facility provides you with copies of the medical records to bring back home

Warnings for Americans Traveling Abroad

According to an organization called APIC, which is focused on infection control, a person undergoing surgery in a foreign country may be susceptible to:

  • Infections by viruses such as hepatitis B and HIV if needles and syringes are reused or used improperly
  • Bloodborne infections if the country uses paid donors or does not follow strict blood screening measures
  • Infection by antibiotic-resistant bacteria
  • Bacterial infections if the instruments and medical equipment are improperly sterilized
  • Infections if poor quality water is used in the procedure

International Travelers to the U.S.

The 2016-2017 annual survey by the US Cooperative for International Patient Programs—which boasts 64 member institutions including health systems, academic medical centers, and hospitals that provide care to international patients and are focused on international health care collaborations—reported about 61,000 unique patients, 152,304 outpatient visits, and 17,140 inpatient hospital discharges. A majority of patients were from Kuwait, Canada, China, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia.

Most major health systems and hospitals in the U.S. have a separate department that handles services for international patients, including visa services, travel, providing an interpreter, and transportation from the airport. However, while these patients come to the U.S. with the hope of better care and a chance for survival, it can get complicated, as documented by a physician from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute for The New York Times. International patients bring in financial resources for the hospital, however the author points to administrative, ethical, economic, and social challenges associated with caring for them.

* We are sharing these resources with you so you can get an idea what is available if you were to search. This is not an endorsement. We have no relationship with these companies.


Additional Resources

  1.     U.S. State Department’s guide for those seeking care abroad: https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/before-you-go/your-health-abroad.html.
  2.   Additional information for medical tourists: https://asmbs.org/patients/medical-tourism.
  3. Center for Disease Control and Prevention information: https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/page/medical-tourism

Read about how to prepare to travel when you have a chronic illness in an article by our friend Danyelle Fay.


Surabhi Dangi-Garimella, Ph.D.

Surabhi Dangi-Garimella, Ph.D. is a biologist with academic research experience, who brought her skills and knowledge to the health care communications world. She provides writing and strategic support to non-profit groups via her consultancy, SDG AdvoHealth, LLC.

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