Medical Tourism Overview

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Natalia Casas, Staff Writer

Natalia Casas is a bilingual (English-Spanish) writer whose work has appeared in magazines and on websites across Latin America and the United States. Her areas of expertise include fashion, health, lifestyles, travel, and self-improvement. She is a professional English-to-Spanish translator and holds a mass communication and journalism degree from Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana in MedellĂ­n, Colombia.


July 05 2007

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Medical Tourism: Weighing the Rewards and Risks of Medical Travel

Medical tourism, or traveling to another country for urgent or elective medical procedures, such as cosmetic plastic surgery, is expected to become a $40 billion-a-year global industry by 2010. This year alone upwards of 500,000 Americans will be lured to distant overseas destinations by promises of quality surgical care for as little as one-tenth of the cost of the same procedure in the United States, a price that may include round-trip airfare and a brief recovery "vacation" at a hotel-like medical facility.

India, Thailand, and Malaysia are among the nations driving the medical tourism revolution. Medical tourism in India, which is considered the leading country promoting medical tourism, is growing nearly 30% annually. Indian medical corporations aggressively court American and western patients with package deals that include flights, hotels, treatments and postoperative recovery vacations. Thailand medical tourism features Bangkok's Bumrungrad Hospital, a luxurious medical facility that claims to treat more medical tourists than any other hospital in the world. A website promoting medical tourism in Malaysia touts competitive rates, state-of-the-art facilities, internationally trained medical specialists and, most importantly to some patients, easily accessible tourist destinations. These international medical powerhouses recognize that travel for medical purposes is an option being chosen by many Americans who feel they can't afford quality elective surgical procedures in the United States.

Yes, medical tourism is big business. And, many countries around the world creatively market medical travel vacations with great economic success. South Africa, for instance, actively promotes medical safaris that combine the excitement of stalking lions and elephants across the savannah with cut-rate cosmetic surgical procedures.

Medical Tourism is not Without Risks

One can easily see why medical tourism is so appealing. Affordable medical care from internationally trained doctors in a relaxing resort environment is hard to ignore. But, many experts are quick to point out that medical travel comes with some serious risks.

Among the most commonly voiced concerns about medical tourism, especially for cosmetic procedures, is the difficulty of checking the qualifications of surgeons, anesthesiologists and medical staff at privately owned and operated medical travel facilities. Also, because U.S. law is rarely enforceable overseas, medical tourism clients often have little or no legal recourse in the event of negligence or malpractice by the physician or institution.

What's more, the belief that cosmetic plastic surgery is "minor surgery" that can be accomplished between sightseeing destinations can lead to a variety of postsurgical complications including infections, unsightly scars, hematomas, and unsatisfactory results. In fact, many vacation activities such as sunbathing, alcohol consumption, swimming, extensive walking and exercise are known to put recent cosmetic plastic surgery patients at risk for complications. Even long air flights associated with medical tourism to India, Thailand, and other medical travel destinations increases the risk of swelling, infection and blood clots.

Follow-up care is another important consideration for the medical tourist. Most travel medical packages provide for limited or no follow-up consultations once the patient returns to the United States. If complications arise, local doctors may not be able to treat patients who underwent cosmetic surgery abroad as easily.

Look for Safe, Convenient Stateside Alternatives First

Before booking medical travel that involves traveling halfway around the world for cosmetic plastic surgery, patients should look into the many safe, affordable plastic surgery options available here in the United States. Many American surgeons are banding together in networks to offer very affordable financing terms to patients who are not insured or whose medical coverage doesn't apply to cosmetic surgery.

Generally, the cost of financing a procedure with a board-certified surgeon includes all preoperative consultations, performing the actual procedure and a number of follow-up consultations to ensure the patient is healing properly and has achieved the desired results.

The bottom line is that bargain-priced medical travel packages may end up costing far more than originally thought – in time, money and long-term health effects. Patients should carefully weigh the convenience and medical advantages of undergoing a cosmetic procedure locally against the international travel and increased potential for complications common with medical tourism.