NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


October 27, 2008

More and more Americans are traveling to countries like Singapore, Thailand and Costa Rica for medical procedures that are cheaper there than at home.  Sometimes, they don't have insurance; sometimes, their insurance doesn't cover what they need.

"The American health care system has pushed itself into a corner where even the most routine care is not financially accessible for the average family," said Dr. Steven Tucker, an oncologist in Singapore who is president of the International Medical Travel Association, a nonprofit group of health care providers and medical travel agents.

Estimates on the number of medical tourists vary widely and depend on how the term is defined:

  • A new report by the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions , a research arm of the accounting firm Deloitte LLP, says that 750,000 Americans traveled abroad for medical care in 2007.
  • Meanwhile, Josef Woodman, author of the consumer guide "Patients Beyond Borders," puts the 2007 number closer to 180,000.

The global consulting firm McKinsey & Co. released a study in May that said the trend is far smaller than commonly reported:

  • It put the number of all medical travelers -- not just Americans -- at 60,000 to 85,000 per year.
  • But that study, unlike the Deloitte one, used a definition of medical travel that does not include people who get outpatient procedures or go to neighboring countries for care.

A November 2007 report by the National Center for Policy Analysis said India "arguably has the lowest cost and highest quality of all medical tourism destinations, and English is widely spoken."

Almost everything that hospitals need is cheaper in India, including labor.  Nurses earn $2 an hour "if they're lucky," says Dr. Kushagara Katariya, a cardiothoracic surgeon said.  They earn $1.60 an hour at Artemis (a hospital near New Delhi).

In "Patients Beyond Borders," author Josef Woodman says that if the estimated out-of-pocket cost of treatment in the United States -- including consultation, procedure and hospital stay -- is $6,000 or more, "you'll probably save money traveling abroad for your care.  If it's less than $6,000, you're better off having your treatment at home."

Source: Corrie MacLaggan, "U.S. insurers consider sending patients overseas for cheaper treatment," Austin American-Statesman, October 24, 2008.


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