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With soaring healthcare prices, millions of people are seeking medical procedures abroad. Read on as writer Stefanie De Leon Tzic explores the benefits and sometimes-scary downsides of medical tourism.
Text by: Stefanie De Leon Tzic      Country: United States

ith the rising cost of healthcare and outstanding wait periods for procedures, many are opting to get their medical care elsewhere. It is estimated that as many as 23 million Americans could be traveling globally in 2017, and spending up to $79 billion per year for medical care, according to the 2008 report from the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions.

Medical tourism, also referred to as global healthcare or health tourism, is the traveling from one’s country to another to receive healthcare. Countries such as Thailand, India, and Brazil are attracting patients globally who pay a fraction of the price for surgical procedures and receive immediate treatment, according to The Lancet , a medical journal. Whether it is for elective surgery or specialized surgery, medical tourism has become the new option for the uninsured as well as patients seeking more affordable treatment.

The concept of traveling abroad for health purposes is not a new one. It wasn’t until after the 1997 stock market crash of Thailand that medical tourism began to escalate. With the economic crisis at hand, various Thai hospitals started to market affordable medical care to patients in other countries in hopes of bringing in foreign currency.

These effective tactics allowed for Bumrungrad International Hospital in Thailand to become the international hospital it is today. Over 435,000 foreign patients are treated at Bumrungrad International every year, with 58,000 of them being American, as stated by the International Journal of Health Services. Its worldly clientele includes people from Japan, Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. According to the Journal of Legal Medicine , Thailand is now the leading country in medical tourism.

High costs, long wait times, accessibility improvements in international travel, as well as advancements in technology and standards of care in other countries are driving people in developed nations to receive medical aid outside their own countries. The low cost of living conditions and the availability of cheap pharmaceuticals allow developing countries to offer some procedures at 10 % of the cost in the United States, including travel and accommodation. It is becoming more convenient to fly abroad to get surgery and receive follow-up care than it is to get surgery alone in the United States.

However, there also exist some risks in choosing to go abroad for healthcare. The biggest issue of all is patient safety. In 2004, The Centers for Disease Control published a report exposing the below standard care that a patient received when undergoing cosmetic surgery in the Dominican Republic.

If there were a case of malpractice abroad, the patient would have little to no legal aid. There are also some ethical issues, such as where the tissue or organs are coming from and if they are being illegally purchased. Licensing and certification is another big concern. Although the Joint Commission International has accredited more than 123 medical institutions across Asia, Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and South America, there always exists the possibility that their staff might not be up to par .

Along with these risks, there is the underlying issue that medical tourism denotes: a crisis in the healthcare system. According to MedRetreat, a health tourism company in the United States, there are four groups interested in this alternative: 47 million uninsured Americans; 250 million insured Americans with restricted coverage due to pre-existing conditions; 34 million Canadians receiving socialized medicine and enduring long wait lists for many popular surgeries; and, approximately 330 million North Americans seeking elective cosmetic and/or dental surgery.

Recalling the death of 23-year-old American Joshua Goldberg, who died February, 2006 in the Bumrungrad International Hospital, raises the concern of patient safety. Goldberg checked into the hospital on February 12 complaining about a loss of feeling and movement of one of his legs. He died twelve days later. His father, James R. Goldberg, has accused the hospital of malpractice and organ harvesting in his website directed against Bumrungrad International, and is pursuing legal action. The grieving father published a book called The American Medical Money Machine, the Destruction of Healthcare in America and the Rise of Medical Tourism, where he meticulously examines every detail surrounding his son’s death and probes the question of whether his death was accidental or not.

On the other hand, there is Mary Percak-Dennett from Wasilla, Alaska, who was featured in a 2008 spring article in the Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions, went abroad to Malaysia to get her knees replaced. She couldn’t afford the $28,000 surgery to get one knee replaced, let alone both of her knees. After hearing a program about medical tourism on National Public Radio , she got in contact with a medical tourism provider and was sent to Gleneagles Medical Centre in Penang, Malaysia for the duration of eleven days. She was quoted as being “totally satisfied” with the care and treatment.

Medical tourism is still developing, but it is quickly becoming a possible alternative for those who simply cannot afford the high cost of surgeries or those who have been left out by the healthcare system. Although a much more economical alternative, it still carries significant risks.


Easy Summary

Medical tourism is the traveling from one’s country to another to receive healthcare. This happens in the United States because of the high cost of healthcare and long wait periods. Countries like Thailand, India, and Brazil attract patients from all over the world because they pay a fraction of the price for surgical procedures and receive immediate treatment.

As many as 23 million Americans could be medical tourists in 2017. In countries like Thailand and Brazil, the cost of living is much lower and medical procedures are offered at only 10% of the cost in the United States. It is becoming more convenient to fly to another country to get surgery and receive follow-up care than it is to get surgery in the United States.

Though medical tourism is still developing, it still has significant risks. Some of these risks are: patient safety, below standard hospital staff, no legal aid if something was to go wrong.



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