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Making Healthcare More Affordable: Traveling Overseas for Medical Procedures

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Making Healthcare More Affordable: Traveling Overseas for Medical Procedures

Andrew WanMaking Healthcare More Affordable: Traveling Overseas for Medical ProceduresMillion Mile Secrets Team

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INSIDER SECRET: Thanks to improved health standards and internationally recognized accreditations for hospitals, you’ll be able to save money on medical procedures by traveling overseas while still receiving the same standard of healthcare. 

Almost half of Americans who are sick can’t afford services such as medical care, prescription medicine, mental health care, dental care or eyeglasses, according to a 2018 Kaiser Family Foundation analysis. If you can’t afford the cost of a medical procedure in the US, you can look to having it done overseas where it can be much more affordable.

This form of medical tourism is not as uncommon as you may think. Patients Beyond Borders, which produces guides for medical tourists, estimates that approximately 1.9 million Americans will travel outside the United States for more affordable medical care this year.

If you’re looking for less expensive options, here is our guide on how to get it done overseas. We’ll go over what to look for, how you can save money, how to prepare for the trip and how you can use tools like some of the best airline credit cards to help hold down your costs for the trip.

If medical bills are weighing you down, consider medical tourism. You can save a lot of money and still receive quality care. (Photo by fizkes/Shutterstock)

Medical Tourism: Increasing Popularity in Multiple Countries

When people travel to another country to receive medical care, that’s what’s referred to as medical tourism. Often they find that the medical procedures they need can be done overseas at a fraction of the cost they would incur in the US.

Patients Beyond Borders estimates the current market for medical tourism to be between $65 billion and $87.5 billion annually, with a projected growth of 20-25% this year alone. 

And according to their data, top destinations include (in alphabetical order): Costa Rica, India, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Turkey.   

These are popular countries because they have many characteristics that support quality healthcare institutions, such as:

  • Sizeable investments in the healthcare infrastructure (government and/or private funding)
  • Transparency and commitment to accreditation and patient outcomes
  • Political transparency and social stability
  • Strong tourism infrastructure
  • Reputation for clinical excellence
  • History of healthcare innovations and achievements
  • Availability of internationally trained, experienced medical staff

Medical Tourism Can Yield Significant Savings

The monetary savings can be huge for those traveling overseas for medical procedures, even after you factor in costs of travel. According to Patients Beyond Borders, you can see an average savings anywhere from 20-80% if you travel outside the US for a comparable medical procedure:

  • Brazil: 20-30%
  • Costa Rica: 45-65%
  • India: 65-90%
  • Malaysia: 65-80%
  • Mexico: 40-65%
  • Singapore: 25-40%
  • South Korea: 30-45%
  • Taiwan: 40-55%
  • Thailand: 50-75%
  • Turkey: 50-65%

Here are some examples of comparative costs for major procedures across different countries (costs are as of October 2018):

ProcedureUS CostCosta RicaIndiaMalaysiaMexicoSingaporeSouth KoreaTaiwanThailand
Average Savings45-65%65-90%60-80%40-60%25-40%25-45%40-65%50-75%
Coronary Artery Bypass Graft - CABG$92,000$31,500$9,800$20,800$34,000$54,500$29,000$27,000$33,000
Valve replacement with bypass$87,000$28,000$11,900$15,000$26,500$46,000$38,000$22,000$19,000
Total hip replacement$31,000$15,300$9,400$12,500$14,200$21,400$21,600$14,00$16,500
Total knee replacement$28,000$14,200$7,200$7,800$12,300$19,200$16,250$13,400$13,200
Laminectomy$65,000NA$9,500$14,250$22,500$27,800$24,200$18,000$16,000
IVF cycle, excluding medication$12,500NA$3,300$4,200$5,800$9,450$7,500$4,600$4,000
Gastric bypass$23,000$10,500$6,800$9,250$11,500$14,800$14,500$12,700$12,600
4-implant porcelain bridge$21,500$9,350$6,850$7,700$9,300$11,800$9,900$8,700$9,300
Implant-supported dentures (upper and lower)$11,500$4,250$3,300$3,750$4,100$7,000$5,650$4,350$3,700
Full facelift$11,500$4,900$2,800$3,300$4,750$7,850$5,900$5,250$3,700
Rhinoplasty$4,800$2,600$1,400$2,800$3,100$3,500$3,800$3,200$1,600

*The data above has been provided by Patients Beyond Borders. US costs vary based on location, materials and equipment used, and individual patients’ requirements. Figures are averages and reflect more common incidence of cost. All figures are in US dollars. 

**International estimates include all treatment-related costs but exclude travel and accommodations. Figures are averages and reflect more common incidence of costs. All figures are in US dollars. Patients should confirm pricing with their doctor or facility. 

Quality medical care is available in a number of different countries, often for a fraction of the cost. (Photo by Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock)

Credit card tip: Although you will incur airfare expenses by traveling overseas for medical procedures, you can redeem miles and points on one of the best airline credit cards to save you money on airfare.

Example 1: Earning the current intro bonus on the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card will earn you 40,000 Alaska Airlines miles (after you spend $2,000 in the first 90 days of account opening), enough for a one-way ticket to Thailand, Australia, or India.

Read our review of the Alaska Airlines credit card for details.

Example 2: The current welcome bonus on the CitiBusiness®/AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Mastercard® of 60,000 American Airlines miles (after you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months of account opening) is enough for a round-trip coach saver-award ticket to Europe.

Read our review of the CitiBusiness AAdvantage Platinum Select.

Preparing for Your Trip and Staying Safe

Having a medical procedure done overseas can feel like a step into the unknown. You’re away from home in a foreign country that may have different health standards, so you want to be sure that the hospital and doctors performing your medical operation are up to par.

Credit card tip: Travel insurance can be a wise investment. Travel health insurance can provide medical coverage overseas, while trip cancellation coverage can reimburse you for expenses you incur (such as airfare and hotels) if you miss your flight because of a covered reason, such as a medical emergency.

Some of the best airline credit cards have some form of travel insurance built in, and you’ll want to read the fine print to make sure the coverage is adequate. If you need more coverage, you can purchase a separate travel insurance policy from a third party.

Make Sure Your Hospital is Accredited

Make sure the hospital that will be performing your medical procedure is accredited. This is very important because it means that the hospital has been assessed by a third-party and has been found to meet or exceed certain established health care standards either on an international level or a national level.

Check Your Doctor’s License and Reputation

Medical licenses should be publicly available. Do your due diligence and make sure your doctor is properly licensed. You’ll want to make sure their license is active and not suspended, and you should also be able to see if there have been any complaints or disciplinary actions taken against them.

You can dig even further and research what other patients have had to say about their experience with a particular doctor.

Bottom line: Make sure they have a good reputation, are properly licensed and have no adverse actions taken against their medical license (such as claims of malpractice).

Arrange Transfer of Your Medical Records

It’s important that the hospital has your medical records. They’ll need to know everything relevant to your health that could potentially impact their approach to your medical procedure. Current medications you’re taking or any allergies, for instance, could have serious implications on your safety and the outcome of the procedure.

Get Help From Others

Undergoing a medical procedure is not something you want to do alone, especially when done overseas. Bring someone with you for the trip, like a trusted friend or family member. Not only can they be a second set of eyes and ears for getting around, but they can also serve as a trusted backup in case something goes wrong or you need help during the recovery process.

You can also enlist the help of a medical travel agent. They’re experts in connecting patients with medical providers and can at the very least provide another set of options when it comes to choosing where you want your medical procedure done.

Preparing for Your Return Home and the Recovery Process

Consult with your doctor about how the medical procedure will affect your ability to travel. In some instances, your physician may recommend avoiding travel for anywhere from a few days to several weeks after a medical procedure because of potential complications or stress that flying may put on your body.

It’s important to listen to your doctor’s recommendation and adhere to their prescribed plan of recovery. For instance, according to the CDC, those who have had recent surgery or have undergone certain medical procedures are more prone to experiencing blood clots on a plane. This can be especially dangerous because of the limited medical resources when you’re in the air, so it’s best to play things safe and only travel home with the approval of your doctor.

Credit card tips: With the right credit card, you could be treated to perks to make your journey home more comfortable. This may be especially important right after undergoing a medical procedure. 

Here are some perks you can look forward to on some of the best airline credit cards:

  • Book business-class or first class tickets with airline miles: Having more seat and legroom can make the flight more comfortable, especially since your body may be more sensitive following a medical procedure.
  • Reimbursement for Global Entry and TSA PreCheck: Some credit cards reimburse the fee for Global Entry and TSA PreCheck. So for essentially no cost, you’ll be able to use shorter security lines and avoid the hassle of having to remove any jackets, shoes, or belts.
  • Airport lounge access: Avoid airport commotion by gaining access to the quiet setting of an airport lounge. Depending on the location, you can also look forward to free food, drinks, and possibly even a shower.
  • Priority boarding: By being one of the first to board the plane, you can have more time to settle in and not worry about not being able to find space in the overhead bins for your luggage.

Bottom Line

The cost for medical procedures in the US is significantly higher than many other countries. If you’re unable to bear the financial cost of a required medical procedure, know that you do have options overseas.

Medical tourism — traveling overseas for a medical procedure —  is more common than you may think, and it’s a rapidly growing market. Although it can be scary to have a medical procedure done in a different country, you can stay safe by keeping the following in mind:

  • Make sure your hospital is accredited
  • Check your doctor’s license and reputation
  • Make sure the hospital has a copy of your medical records
  • Bring someone with you
  • Follow your doctor’s prescribed recovery guidelines

Finally, don’t forget to take advantage of many of the built-in travel protections and perks of some of the best airline credit cards. You can save money by booking a flight with miles instead of cash, and perks like priority boarding and Global Entry can make the flying process much more comfortable.

If you or anyone you know has any experience with medical tourism, let us know in the comments below and what the experience was like. And subscribe to our newsletter for tips and tricks to travel cheaper and smarter!

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Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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I’ve used Pitangui in Seoul, South Korea for cosmetic eye surgery. Excellent doctor with more experience than ones in US in my area, and about 1/2 the price of US doctor. Plus VAT can be reimbursed if you pick a doctor who is registered with the Minister of Health and Welfare – see VisitMedicalKorea.com for links.
Of course, like any medical procedure, you have to account for some time after the surgery for recovery and follow-up. In my case, recovery was short. I did one followup with the doctor, and then I came back to the US for stitch removal since my trip was short.

Ideally, you want to have enough time to sightsee beforehand, do your procedure, and have enough time for followup and recovery on the backend of your trip before going home.

Another thing to note is that you might need access to a freezer or lots of ice after the surgery to keep swelling down for some procedures. I found that getting ice and the size of the bucket in foreign hotels can be quite different from the US.