ABC News reports on medical tourism

Last week ABC News had a feature on medical tourism. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this concept, it simply means travelling away from your home area to have a procedure performed, usually done for cost reasons but sometimes also because of quality, availability, or because family is actually closer to where the procedure will be done.

The price savings can be substantial, especially for self-pay patients who have to directly pay for some or all of the cost of care. A few weeks ago I wrote about a patient who traveled to Thailand for surgery on his shoulder, saving more than $120,000. There are also domestic medical tourism options, such as that offered by Medibid and North American Surgery.

And I mentioned yesterday on The Self-Pay Patient Facebook page that my friend Ralph Weber of Tennessee, who runs Medibid, had found a facility and surgeon in Virginia willing to do arthroscopic surgery on his wife for about $3,700 after his local hospital had quoted him a price of nearly $17,000 for the same procedure! 

They actually saved the $3,700 too when the surgeon they traveled to reviewed her case and said she didn’t need surgery, only a cortisone shot. Even if that hadn’t been the case, the savings would have been over $9,000!

It looks like employers are starting to get in on the act as well, using medical tourism as a way to significantly cut the cost of care for employees and retirees. Here’s part of the ABC report:

As More Americans Have Surgery Overseas, US Companies Consider ‘Medical Tourism’ a Health Care Option

Joy Guion was boarding a plane for the first time to fly from her native North Carolina to Costa Rica…At 5-foot-9 and 283 pounds, Guion has “severe chronic obesity” and a family history of diabetes and heart disease, and she was headed to a Costa Rican hospital for weight loss surgery.

Gary Harwell, a 65-year-old retired manager who used to work at the same plant as Guion, accompanied her on the trip to Costa Rica. He was getting a knee replacement at the same private hospital, Hospital Clinica Biblica

Guion and Harwell work for HSM, a furniture and auto parts manufacturer in western North Carolina. The company gave Guion a choice for this surgery: Pay a co-pay in the U.S. or outsource the procedure abroad for free…

She and Harwell are among a growing wave of Americans frustrated by the rising costs of the U.S. health care system and heading abroad for medical procedures. Nearly one million Americans go overseas for procedures every year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention…

Even with their insurance, both Harwell and Guion said each would have paid $3,000 out of pocket in the U.S. — an amount Guion said she wouldn’t have been able to afford. But in Costa Rica, they both pay nothing — their company picks up the bill.

And now, some American companies are considering outsourcing medical care, dubbed “medical tourism,” as a health care option.

In the end, HSM said it saves money. Outsourcing medical care has saved it nearly $10 million in health care costs over the past five years, according to the company. Close to 250 of its employees have traveled abroad so far for medical care, and more are scheduled to go.

In the United States, Harwell’s knee replacement would have cost more than $50,000. In Costa Rica, it costs half that amount at $23,531. In North Carolina, Guion’s gastric sleeve surgery would have cost about $30,000, but in Costa Rice, it comes to $17,386. Both were placed in pristine rooms in state-of-the-art hospitals…

Traveling overseas for medical care is not without risk (neither is having any procedure done anywhere in the U.S., for that matter). The article notes that “ there is a risk of complications after post-op and said there have been documented cases of people dying or developing infections after having surgeries in foreign countries.” Different legal systems can also make it a challenge to sue the doctor or facility as well, in the event of malpractice.

But given the choice between getting affordable care overseas (or in the U.S. but away from home) and not getting any care at all, most self-pay patients will opt to get the care they need. With 1 million Americans traveling overseas every year, expect there to be more interest in this option, which hopefully will lead to more U.S. facilities competing to keep patients from becoming medical tourists by offering real, low prices for self-pay patients.

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4 Responses to ABC News reports on medical tourism

  1. bullpen1957 says:

    Hey Sean – I heard a rumor that there was a piece on the CBS Morning Show this morning. I DVR’d it, but have not had a chance to look at the tape.


    Bill @braunlaw1

  2. seandparnell says:

    Thanks! Here is that CBS story:

    There’s also a companion story exploring the risks of medical tourism,, I think the Dr. interviewed overplays the risks but it’s worth considering.

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