In an attempt to rein in exploding medical costs, a growing number of health insurance companies are offering their customers, both individuals and employers, an opportunity to get their health care overseas. Some medical and dental procedures overseas can cost up to 80 percent less, excluding travel costs, than in the states.
Medical tourism, according to the international nonprofit organization Medical Tourism Association, is a practice whereby “people who live in one country travel to another country to receive medical, dental and surgical care,” which they do “because of affordability, better access to care or a higher level of quality of care.” One of the principles of the Association is to provide unbiased information and education for health insurance companies, patients, and employers about available hospitals and medical and dental services.
In the past, most medical tourists were wealthy or uninsured. Today, however, more and more of them have health insurance. According to a 2008 survey conducted by Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, nearly 40 percent of Americans said they would travel overseas to receive medical treatment if the cost was cut in half and the quality of care was comparable.
As more and more Americans make the trip overseas—80,000 traveled to Bangkok’s Bumrungrad International Hospital in 2006 alone, according to Managed Care magazine—health insurance providers are slowing joining in. Among them are Aetna, Blue Cross Blue Shield of South Carolina, and Georgia-based BasicPlus Insurance Services, and an increasing number of others are making inquiries.
One concern about surgeries and medical procedures performed overseas is follow-up care. Patients need to know how such care will be handled, especially if complications arise. Some US insurance providers have agreements with foreign hospitals to coordinate post-procedure care.
Some services, such as hip and knee surgery, heart valve replacements, spinal fusions, coronary artery bypass graft surgery, and many dental surgeries, are good candidates for medical tourists. Others, such as bone marrow transplants, need special follow-up care and should be done at home.
Individuals whose health insurance provider offers overseas medical care should consider several factors. Generally, people who have a high deductible plan may find medical tourism economically worthwhile, and some employers are even willing to pick up the travel expenses because the savings to them is considerable as well. High out-of-pocket expenses are common with dental coverage, which makes overseas dental care trips popular as well. Medical tourists should also take along a friend or family member to help them deal with the medical system in a foreign country.
Approximately 750,000 Americans were medical tourists in 2007 and, according to Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, about twice that number will make the trip in 2010. As the number of health insurance companies who offer this option to its premium payers grows, so will the number of individuals and employers who will pack their bags.
Business Week, November 9, 2008
Deloitte Center for Health Solutions
Forbes.com August 22, 2009
Medical Tourism Association
USA Today August 22, 2009