By Christopher Wolfington
It seems like a life hack that shouldn’t work. Medical services are expensive everywhere…aren’t they? Where’s the catch? The lower prices mean worse quality, right? These are often the initial thoughts of individuals who discover the idea of medical tourism for the first time. But in many cases, the answers to those questions is “nope,” “no catch,” and “not necessarily.”
In other words, medical tourism seems too good to be true. But is it, really?
Medical tourism refers to anybody who travels abroad primarily for the purpose of getting a medical procedure. Sometimes, this involves traveling to a specialist elsewhere who has specific experience with a quirky condition or disease. But usually, medical tourism is just a way to avoid what are sometimes prohibitively expensive services in the United States—even with insurance.
The Medical Tourism Association, a non-profit advocate of medical tourism, claims that cost savings “can be up to 90%” over the same service domestically. In practice, it’s not quite that good a deal; traveling abroad, especially when considering surgery recovery, is a logistically challenging task, and lodging and airfare are not cheap. Still, it’s easy to recoup those costs and significantly more if you pay $4,000 for a surgery that would have cost $15,000 in the U.S.
There are certainly downsides to medical tourism. Traveling abroad for services requires enough up-front capital that it does price out poorer individuals right out of the gate. The possibility of convoluted legal issues looms, too, especially if there are complications for the procedure or if the procedure is of questionable legality in the U.S. And while reputable health care providers worldwide meet or exceed American standards of quality, sometimes a lower price does exist because of questionable quality.
But the benefits of medical tourism are clear, too. Americans don’t necessarily travel elsewhere to get a procedure because it is extremely cheap; rather, they do so because domestic health care is so often extremely expensive. The United States spends twice as much on health care as 10 other similarly wealthy nations, per a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association. And it’s not because Americans use more health care. They just pay more.
If the United States wants to cut down on medical tourism, thereby bringing procedures and revenue back into the country, it needs to lower its prices enough so that patients don’t need or want to travel elsewhere.
Until then, medical tourism will flourish, and not without good reason. Americans are trained to sniff out good deals—it’s just that, in this case, the good deals are elsewhere.