Do your research before considering medical tourism
Author : Contra Costa Times- Joan Aragone
I first encountered people traveling for medical treatment overseas more than 20 years ago when I was working in Beijing.
They came from everywhere for cosmetic surgery or other treatments. European tourists discussed health care in Bangkok.
As a foreign resident, I visited the same prestigious medical center that served high-ranking government officials. Dentists crowned a still functioning broken tooth for the equivalent of 100 U.S. dollars.
But I lived there, I reasoned. No way would I fly around the world for treatment. Or arrange an eye job while on holiday.
But that was then. Today, millions of people do just that. They're part of "medical tourism," described by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention as "a worldwide, multibillion-dollar phenomenon." In 2007, a privately funded study estimated that 540,000 Americans traveled overseas for care in the previous year.
How do they do it? Through planning, references from local physicians and friends and contacts in the foreign country.
"Personal contacts work best," said San Francisco medical tourism entrepreneur Robert Hemphill. "If you know somebody in the country, start with them."
Would-be patients commonly research according to the region that interests them or by the procedure needed. Some countries, like India, are known for excellence in heart surgeries. Others, like Costa Rica, are popular for dental work. You may have previous experience in Asia, or know someone enthusiastic about Mexico. You may want to stay close to home.
Accreditation is key. Determine that the hospital, department and physician you will work with are accredited by Joint Commission International (JCI), a private, nonprofit affiliate of the same nonprofit that accredits U.S. hospitals, the JCOHA. As of 20012, JCI has accredited more than 400 hospitals in 27 countries.
To aid in the process, growing numbers of potential patients are turning to "medical tourism facilitators," companies that for a fee will research and locate the facility, help with sending documents overseas and arrange travel. Some will even send a representative to accompany you. Check them online via "medical tourism facilitators" or through the Medical Tourism Association. However, Hemphill said, it's important to check out the companies themselves. See www.medicaltourismassociation.com for information.
As U.S. health care costs continue to rise, some U.S. insurance companies are paying for international medical trips. It costs less than paying for a procedure in the U.S. Meanwhile, several U.S. medical centers have established joint venture agreements overseas. For example, a hospital in Dubai will open this year operated through a joint venture with Harvard Medical School.
But, as in any medical procedure, risks exist, and Americans need to be aware that for most procedures not covered by U.S. insurance (which are most of them) little legal recourse is available. Thus thorough research beforehand is mandatory.
In Hemphill's view, preparation and post-care are as important as the procedure itself. Be sure the diagnosis is correct. Get a second opinion. Plan for an extended postoperative stay. Some foreign hospitals include a post-surgery week or more in hospital as part of the fee. But stay longer if you can. The CDC recommends no travel for 10 days after chest or abdominal surgery. If possible, keep your U.S. doctor involved.
Medical tourism is not for everybody. It's challenging, complicated and time consuming to organize. And, despite the huge savings in medical costs -- an estimated $200,000 for heart surgery in a US hospital compared with the $6,700 a U.S. patient paid for a successful surgery in India -- it still costs money: airfare, longer stays overseas.
But increasing numbers of Americans are taking the chance, and, with proper preparation, are returning home healthier than before.
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