Have Plane, Will Travel for Lower Cost Health Care through medical tourism Medical Tourism Grows Into Billion-Dollar Industry, According to Deloitte Study

Just four days before surgery to alleviate chronic back pain, 36-year-old Sacramento insurance agent Wayne King found out his health care insurer was no longer willing to cover the procedure.

The insurer deemed his two-level total disc replacement surgery experimental, a representative said.

King was devastated to find that it would cost him $105,000, including $52,000 upfront, to undergo the procedure at a nearby hospital.

After mulling his options, including bankruptcy, King had the procedure done in Malaysia, where just two weeks later he was relaxing at a seaside resort and taking in the lush scenery with his family. The cost: $28,000, including his hospital expenses and airfare and hotel for three people.

King is among hundreds of thousands of Americans who have sought medical treatment outside the United States at a fraction of the cost charged by domestic health care providers. An offshoot of tourism, known as medical tourism, has formed to accommodate them. Broadly speaking, medical tourism refers to traveling to another country for health care.

For King, Malaysia offered the opportunity to access low-cost health care without restrictions placed on him by his insurer. Today, King says he’s pain-free.

“I wasn’t able to stand for more than 20 minutes prior to the surgery without being in pain,” King said. “I really have my life back.”

While cosmetic surgeries and dental work have commonly drawn Americans to Mexico, many today also travel to places such as India, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand for hip and knee replacements, dental implants, coronary angioplasties, spinal fusions and ovarian cyst removals.

Boom Expected

In the next three to five years, the industry is expected to boom, according to the Deloitte 2008 Survey of Health Care Consumers. Last year, Americans seeking treatment outside the U.S. produced $2.1 billion in revenues for the industry, and that number is projected to reach $4.4 billion this year. The study predicted that by 2010, 6 million people will go outside of the U.S. for health care.

San Diego’s proximity to the Mexican border has made it an ideal hub for businesses interested in establishing a presence in the growing industry. Many of those businesses are seeking to connect people without health insurance — or those who recently lost coverage — to a network of foreign doctors and hospital groups.

Steven Lash, CEO of San Diego-based Satori World Medical, identified another need among consumers: employees with health insurance seeking low-cost treatment options.

“Right now, we’re seeing a lot of interest in cardio and orthopedic procedures,” Lash said. “It’s the expensive procedures because that’s where companies get the leverage of savings in the U.S. versus out-of-country.”