Medical tourism of today is usually defined as residents of more affluent countries traveling to other countries for medical care at much reduced prices, which are possible because of lower labor and administrative costs. Insurance companies will often cover the lowered medical costs of outsourcing their patients, presenting individuals with the opportunity to deal with their health issues while on vacation in such exotic countries as Thailand, Singapore, Mexico, Costa Rica, and many others. For procedures not covered by insurance or a lack of insurance coverage altogether, the total outcome for someone paying everything out of pocket, including travel expenses usually comes out lower than having costly procedures done in the home country, which means, in effect, a free vacation!
The concept of medical tourism has been around since the Ancient Greeks traveled from throughout the Mediterranean to Epidauria, the home of the healing god, Asclepius. Sanitariums and spas purported to be the source of special healing waters have also been medical tourism destinations through history. And of course, people of means have always traveled to those countries in the world that have the highest quality of medical treatment, such as the United States and Germany. There are also resort destinations that serve up the opportunity to have elective surgery done in style.
Cuba could be said to be one of the first of what we now think of as “medical tourism destinations,” because for decades, people from other countries have been drawn there by excellent doctors, low prices, and nearby beaches. Today’s medical tourism, where clinics feature highly trained specialists, state-of-the-art equipment, and excellent care and accommodations, usually combined with vacation packages, all at deals that are too good to pass up, began to be recognized as a significantly growing trend at the beginning of the twenty first century.
An early pioneer in the development of the modern medical tourism industry was Thailand, where Bangkok first developed as the regional center serving the corporate Western expat community of Southeast Asia and was quick to see the advantages of offering low cost state of the art medical care enhanced by a first rate experience. India, in turn, began building its current infrastructure in order to treat its own expats returning to their home country, but was soon to hold its own as a world leader in the medical tourism industry. Other early leaders were Costa Rica, South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, Jamaica, and Hungary, where elective dental and cosmetic surgery became added attractions to popular tourist destinations. Now, with ever-increasing health care costs and Baby Boomers coming of an age when their bodies may require such procedures as hip and knee replacement, the medical tourism industry around the world has grown in both sophistication and scope as one of the many facets of expanding globalization.
The procedures that have been a natural fit for medical tourism are those that are elective, expensive, require long waiting periods for those dependent on the National Health Service in Canada and the UK, are either not covered by insurance or have a great deal of restrictions imposed in order to be covered, or are unavailable in the home country.
Of course, important health care decisions should not be taken lightly, and there are some downsides to travelling abroad for medical treatment. The main concerns are not so much about standards and abilities of foreign doctors and clinics as they are about thoroughness, follow-up care, especially when the patient experiences complications, the effects of travel while in recuperation, and the lack of recourse in the case of malpractice. Another drawback is that the patient usually has to come up with cash payments up front and await reimbursement, if there is to be any, although financing is becoming increasingly available.
Anyone considering medical tourism should find out how the doctors who they are contemplating traveling some distance to visit are accredited. In order to maintain the integrity of this growing industry, organizations have arisen, beginning with the Joint Commission International, to provide international health care accreditation services based on the standards of the home country, as follows:
QHA Trent Accreditation – UK
For assistance in navigating the world of globalized health care, medical tourism providers are there to help. They act as both facilitators and independent evaluators of the clinics and hospitals that they recommend to clients, providing listings and ratings, assistance in gathering and relating medical reports, medical advice, legal and financial information, travel services, and being sure to address issues of language, pre-travel health (e.g. immunizations), passports and visas, etc. Keep in mind, however, that these providers are not themselves subject to any kind of oversight, and that it is important to look into the qualifications of anyone dispensing medical or any other kind of professional advice.
The most popular health service sought by medical tourists worldwide is dental care. This field is of health care is has been at the forefront of medical tourism industry for several reasons, among them being the lack of affordable dental insurance, the disparity in costs of living between regional countries, and the nature of dentistry, itself.
Because dentists do not require large medical infrastructures, they are easily able to move their practices from a location where labor and other overhead are high to one where they can live and run their clinics at reduced costs, offering their services to patients from their home countries for less, and ending up increasing their profits. This has been the trend in Europe for several decades, where Swiss, German, and Austrian dentists realized they could relocate their practices to Hungary and take advantage of lower costs while still maintaining an excellent quality of life. In the Western Hemisphere, it was along the Mexican border with the US where dentists began setting up clinics in order to offer their dental skills to US citizens at greatly reduced prices and still do very well for themselves.
Now, there are state-of-the-art clinics throughout the world, wherever overhead remains low, many but not all of which are in resort locations where all-inclusive vacation dental packages give patients even more reasons to flash their new and improved smiles, but always focusing on the treatment of patients from within a regional market who are willing to travel for low cost, high quality dental care.
The term “cosmetic dentistry” that is so often used in advertising indicates that the work is merely for show rather than having to do with health and wellness. But because so many people do not see a dentist regularly, for financial or other reasons, dental tourism offers every kind of dental procedure: from teeth cleaning, crowns, braces, dental implants, dentures, root canals, and extractions; to cleft lip and cleft palate surgery, jaw surgery, and dental bone grafts; to bleaching, laser teeth whitening, and porcelain veneers.
For the success of dental tourism, distance is important. The most popular dental tourism destinations are those where travel expenses will not overcome medical cost savings, while also adding the possibility of follow-up care to the advantages of those locations. For this reason, dental tourism in Mexico remains very popular for North Americans, having expanded away from the US border to locations throughout the country. The classic resorts of Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, which continue to be very attractive vacation destinations, as they are distanced from the violence that has caused problems other parts of the country, have a good head start on their modern dental tourism infrastructure. And now, growing numbers of retirees and expats who have been heading south feed the demand for top-notch dental services at reduced prices wherever they convene in Mexico.
Farther south, successful dental clinics in San José, Costa Rica have built upon that nation’s excellent medical care system, in conjunction with its strong nature tourism industry, to add very inviting dentistry tourism packages to the list of great reasons to visit this beautiful little country.
Panama City, Panama is the other well-established dental tourism center in the region, with the added benefit of being an international travel hub as well as a great vacation destination.
In recent years, San Salvador, the capital of the country of El Salvador, has also developed its dental tourism potential with the lowest prices in the region as its major draw.
For Europeans today, Hungary is not the cheapest option, but it is the most well established dental tourism destination, where standards are very high, costs are still relatively low, and the cultural experience is a big incentive. For decades, Austrians have been crossing the border from Vienna to the nearby city of Mosonmagyarovar, to take advantage of the top-rate services of Swiss, German, and Austrian dentists who have relocated there. Now, this dental tourism hub is also popular for travelers from further away because it is well located right in the heart of historic Europe, with the music, art, and history of Vienna and the Slovakian capital of Bratislava, as well as thermal spas and nature reserves, very nearby.
Many Eastern European countries are adding themselves to the list of new dental tourism destinations that service Europeans from more affluent countries in the west, with German as the prevalent language. For English speakers, Turkey has become a major destination for dental patients, particularly from Ireland and the UK, with all-inclusive tour packages and other vacation perks as incentives.
Of course, the other major medical tourism destinations of the world offer excellent and inexpensive dental services along with all of the other medical procedures they provide, but they are not “dental tourism” destinations per se, and they will be discussed in forthcoming articles in this series about cosmetic surgery and therapeutic surgery tourism.
There are also great dentists throughout the developing world whose services cost a small fraction of what they would in affluent nations, who are simply local dentists. Their offices may be humble and they probably do not speak much English or offer tour deals or hotel room discounts, so they are not “dental tourism” practitioners. However, if you are travelling or living abroad and you need dental work done, ask around, and you are likely to spend even less than what is charged by those who are marketing themselves to foreigners.
Be sure to look out for the next issue of Escape From America Magazine and part 2 of our Medical Tourism series focusing on Cosmetic Surgery.
In the meantime, visit Escape Artist Medical Tourism for lots more information on overseas healthcare and expat health.
About the Author: Julie R Butler is a traveler, blogger, writer, and editor who has authored several books, self-published as eBooks, including Nine Months In Uruguay and No Stranger To Strange Lands (click here for more info). Julie presently lives in the sunny wine country of Argentina, where she and husband, Jamie, edit Expat Daily News and Expat Daily News Latin America.