There seems to be a growing interest in travelling domestically or internationally to find affordable medical treatment, at least judging by the fact that I see this topic featured in the news more frequently than before. For self-pay patients looking for a way to get what might otherwise be an unaffordable procedure one, traveling away from home is probably one of the best options around.
Men’s Journal is one of the many media outlets that has featured medical tourism recently, in an article titled Medical Tourism: Overseas and Under the Knife. The piece mentions a couple of companies and individuals that regular readers of The Self-Pay Patient might recognize, and provides a pretty good overview of the benefits of medical tourism. I thought I’d highlight a couple of the individual patient’s experiences as medical tourists, excerpted below.
For decades, Patrick Follett beat the hell out of his body, taking to the mountain-bike trails five times a week and skiing more than 100 days a year. By the time Follett turned 58 last year, his left hip joint was a ragged mess of flayed cartilage, forcing him to limp around his job as ski-lift supervisor at California’s Snow Summit Mountain Resort and drop recreational skiing altogether. A surgeon told him he had sports-induced arthritis and would need a total hip replacement to get back to biking and skiing.
“With the insurance deductible, it was going to cost me $10,000 out of pocket,” says Follett, with the remaining $32,000 covered. Like some 1.6 million Americans did last year, he decided to go out of the country for a cheaper alternative. He found a reputable surgeon in Mexico who could do the whole operation for $10,000, covering doctors’ fees, room charges, and five days in the hospital – paid entirely by his company. Follett underwent surgery in Mexico in March 2012. One year later, he was back in action, able to ski 140 days in the season and, this past fall, complete a five-day, 335-mile cycling trip north to Mammoth Lake, California. “I feel better than I’ve felt in 15 years,” he says…
…Jeff Wheeler, a construction worker from Maine, dislocated his left shoulder in the 1980s and some 20 years later needed a new one. At home, his surgery would have cost $60,000, and because it was a preexisting condition, his insurance wouldn’t cover it. Wheeler turned to the medical travel company PlanetHospital and arranged to have the surgery done at Piyavate Hospital in Bangkok for $10,000, plus airfare. He would pay for it using part of a workman’s comp settlement he had recently received from the accident.
Wheeler even attended a seminar at his local hospital on what to expect during and after joint replacement surgery. But he didn’t want to go halfway around the world “just to see the inside of a hospital,” he says. So he turned it into a three-week vacation, taking 10 days to first see Vietnam and Angkor Wat – before he went under the knife. “It was the best trip of my life,” says Wheeler…
This past June, MediBid helped Perry Hunt, a 50-year-old home developer in Orange County, California, get a new right hip in Texas. Hunt’s local surgeon said the operation would cost $100,000. Hunt was uninsured and did not want to pay that. MediBid had found quotes for India ($8,000), another hospital in California an hour from Hunt’s home ($14,450), and one in San Antonio ($21,000).
Hunt did not want to travel overseas. And even though the Texas surgery would cost far more than the nearby California alternative, he chose to go there because the doctor could perform the procedure with an anterior approach, going in through the front of the hip rather than the buttocks or side, and avoiding cutting through muscle, which makes for less trauma to the body and a speedier recovery…. Hunt was back to playing golf within four months. “I was up walking the very next day,” says Hunt. “I was able to go home the day following surgery, as well, and was given exercises as my rehab. I couldn’t be happier with the results of my experience and the surgery”
The article also talks a little bit about how to make sure you’re going to a high-quality facility.
… there are a few rules to follow when it comes to getting surgery abroad. The first is to go with a big hospital. “There are hospitals in India and Thailand that have a performance record as good as our best hospitals’,” says Dr. Peter Cram, a physician at the University of Iowa medical school who studies the costs of health. These countries’ best surgeons are often trained at major medical schools like Harvard and UCLA, or their equals in Germany and the United Kingdom.
But, as with hospitals throughout the U.S., quality varies. “What you want to look for first is a hospital that does large numbers of what you need,” says Cram. Also, you want to make sure the facility is accredited by the Joint Commission International, and find out some more about your surgeon by asking where he went to medical school and how many procedures he has performed, and by reading what former patients say online.
Make sure to take advantage of the many medical travel companies… looking to place patients in big hospitals, too, since they will have the most experience with the largest variety of surgeries…
I got to know Dr. Cram several years ago when we were both working on the issue of specialty hospitals, and I highly respect his work in the area of medical outcome quality. His advice is definitely worth heeding.
And I was pleased to see that the article also discussed domestic medical tourism, which many self-pay patients might feel more comfortable with (not to mention the fact that long travel before and after medical treatment can be grueling, especially if there aren’t several days to rest both before and after the treatment).
Not all affordable medicine requires an international flight – some of it is just over the state border. If you’re looking to shop around for better deals within the country, you’ll want to go to a company like MediBid. Since starting three years ago, MediBid has helped 2,500 patients find more affordable health care, saving businesses up to $1.5 million a year in the process by cutting out insurance companies, and with them a bloated, data-driven system that adds layers of cost to our nation’s $2.7 trillion yearly health care bill.
When you desire an elective surgery, you fill out a form with MediBid and it will come back to you with several quotes from doctors around the country and the world. Unlike an insurance company that takes 120 days to pay a doctor or hospital, the company cuts on-the-spot deals. “We go in and say we’ll pay $12,000 instead of $16,000, but the patient can pay at the time of service – no coding and no denial of service,” says MediBid’s Ralph Weber. “It’s a good deal for everyone. That’s why we’re getting good prices.”
Generally, domestic medical tourism doesn’t offer the same savings as traveling internationally. Perry Hunt, the third patient described in the excerpts above, could have gotten his hip replacement done in India for about $8,000, but instead opted for San Antonio and a $21,000 price tag. But that $21,000 was still a significant savings over the $100,000 he’d been quoted by his local surgeon and hospital.
Estimates vary, but as many as 1.2 million Americans may travel internationally or domestically for some sort of medical treatment. Many of these will be for cosmetic purposes, but a lot of it will be for more necessary care, and travelling will save them significantly while providing them with high-quality care. And for self-pay patients, that’s a pretty good deal.