Medical Tourism Can Get You Healthcare Bargains Abroad
Millions of Americans partake in medical tourism each year. If you can’t afford a medical procedure in the U.S., consider investigating options overseas.
Breana Williams, 28, of Fresno, Calif., has comprehensive healthcare coverage, but when she began looking into fertility treatments to start a family, she was floored by the out-of-pocket cost. So while some friends in her shoes started seeking a job at a U.S. company offering to offset or cover the cost of fertility care for their employees, and others took out second mortgages on their homes to cover the cost, Williams had another thought: Mexico.
Thus began Williams’s journey down and up the California coast to Tijuana, where she received three rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment for a fraction of the price quoted to her at home. The initial round cost $3,500 and $1,000 for medication, and each round after that was just $1,500 before the cost of medication. In the states, she was quoted roughly $20,000 for just one round. She is now taking a break from the mentally and physically taxing treatment, but on her latest trip to Mexico, she took advantage of inexpensive dental work.
Each year, millions of U.S. residents travel outside of the country for medical procedures that cost far less than what they’d pay in the U.S. The medical tourism industry is bracing for a new surge of medical travelers in 2023 as healthcare costs in the U.S. continue to rise.
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What is medical tourism?
Medical tourism first took hold decades ago, when wealthy people, mostly women but also some men, began traveling for expensive cosmetic treatments. “Sixty, 70 years ago, the surgical techniques were not great, and it took a long time to recover,” says Josef Woodman, CEO of Patients Beyond Borders, a medical tourism consulting agency. “They would take safari trips and be gone for 30 days, and they’d have all kinds of face and breast and body work done,” he says.
Now medical tourism includes everything from dental implants to knee replacements. Here’s how to find the highest-quality care abroad.
Vet The Provider
Before you consider traveling outside the U.S. for a medical procedure, investigate the quality of care. Making decisions based on price alone may easily land you in harm’s way from infection or some other complication. Stick with accredited facilities, says Woodman. Where you find reputable, affordable facilities, you’ll also find even cheaper clinics that set up shop next door looking to entice clients with less-expensive, inferior care, he says.
Dental care is one of the most popular procedures on the medical tourism list because dental insurance in the U.S. typically isn’t comprehensive. If you’re going to travel for dentistry, make sure that the dentist or specialist is board certified — or at the very least, is a member of the American Dental Association or the International Association of Cosmetic Dentists.
As for other types of medical care, look for hospitals that are accredited by the Joint Commission International (JCI). There are now well over 1,000 JCI-accredited hospitals in the world, and they all follow standards that assure good hygiene practices as well as industry-standard pre-and postoperative care. You can find lists of board-certified plastic surgeons internationally at https://find.plasticsurgery.org.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also provides guidance for Americans who travel abroad for medical care. They include the recommendations to see your health care provider at home in advance to discuss your plans and the potential risks, to buy traveler’s health insurance that will cover medical evacuation and to understand the physical limitations your planned procedure will impose while you’re recuperating. Things you may be tempted to do on vacation, such as swimming, hiking and taking tours, are not always possible on a medical trip.
The CDC also warns of other risks, such as language barriers and the risk of infectious disease and antibiotic-resistant infections, which may be more prevalent in foreign countries. Plus, flying after surgery can be risky because it often increases the risk of blood clots. See the complete CDC guidance on medical tourism.
Many Americans pay out of pocket to cover dental costs — or avoid dental care altogether. Nearly 80 million Americans don’t have dental insurance, according to a 2022 report by CareQuest Institute for Oral Health. And in 2022, more adults identified cost as a reason they are likely to avoid dental care altogether (43%) than in 2021 (38%), the report says.
Cosmetic dentistry is rarely covered by insurance and can run into thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars. Dental care is the number one driver for American medical tourism, accounting for more than two-thirds of medical travel, says Woodman.
Popular for its high-quality care, low costs and relatively easy access from much of the U.S., Mexico tops the list as the go-to destination for dental tourism. Los Algodones, Mexico, also known as “Molar City,” has become home to a number of clinics with affordable care favored by American travelers. Even during the pandemic, Americans could get dental care there when much of the industry in the U.S. came to a halt.
Clinics in Tijuana are popular as well. When Williams traveled to Tijuana for dental veneers, she paid just $2,500 for a full set. In the U.S., the same procedure would likely have cost roughly $9,600.
In Mexico, American travelers can save anywhere from 60% to 80% on popular dental procedures. For example, the average cost of dental implants in Mexico is $1,190 per tooth, compared with $3,822 in the States, according to Medical Departures, a medical tourism agency and comparison website. The site also reports that dentures in Mexico average about $660, compared with an average of $1,800 in the U.S., and dental veneers average $495 per tooth, compared with an average of more than $1,200 in the U.S. And the popular “all-on-4” procedure — which refers to “all” teeth being supported “on four” dental implants — costs an average of nearly $25,000 in the states, but it averages just over $8,000 in Mexico. Mexico is also an affordable option for bariatric surgery, such as gastric band and bypass surgeries.
When it comes to dental tourism, what Mexico is to Americans, Hungary is to Europeans. But that doesn’t mean Americans can’t take advantage of the high-quality, low-cost dental care Hungary offers. Round-trip flights to Budapest, a hotspot for dental tourism that’s also home to world-famous thermal spas, have recently gone for as low as $425 from major U.S. cities.
In Hungary, American travelers can save anywhere from 30% to 80% on popular dental procedures. For example, dental implants in Budapest were recently available for about $2,200 per tooth. Dentures in Hungary go for about $580, and dental veneers go for about $300 to $400 per tooth. Meanwhile, crowns go for anywhere from $210 to $420 each, compared with $1,430 on average in the U.S.
Traveling abroad for lower-cost cosmetic procedures remains a burgeoning industry, and hundreds of thousands of Americans do so each year. Most cosmetic surgery is elective and not covered by insurance, and it costs a pretty penny. Travelers having cosmetic surgery should heed the advice of their doctors with regard to how long they should wait before air travel after surgery.
Rich with ancient history, lively cities, beautiful beaches and exotic wildlife, Thailand enthralls millions of visitors every year. At the same time, it is quickly becoming a global hub for medical tourism. Although it may seem a far-flung destination for serious procedures, the accessibility of affordable and high-quality care makes it a popular choice for many. Thailand attracted just short of 2 million overseas patients in 2019 for surgery ranging from gender reassignment to heart procedures, according to Patients Beyond Borders. Bangkok, the capital, can be reached via direct flights from most major cities around the world, although most U.S. flights require at least one connection. Round-trip flights from Houston via Tokyo were recently available for just over $2,000.
Francesca Landsberg, 65, of Philadelphia, was able to secure even greater-than-average savings when she traveled to Bangkok for multiple cosmetic surgeries in 2022. Landsberg, who traveled for gender-affirming care, received breast-augmentation surgery and multiple cosmetic procedures as part of facial feminization surgery. “I was very pleased with the results,” she says. “I was greeted with respect, and the care there is very good.” Landsberg’s package also included a 30-day stay in a VIP hotel room on location, allowing the appropriate time for recovery before returning home to Pennsylvania.
Cosmetic-surgery patients can expect to save anywhere from 25% to 50% on popular cosmetic procedures in Thailand. For example, one unit of Botox, which goes for an average of $16 in the U.S., averages just $9 in Thailand, according to Medical Departures. Similarly, the average cost of breast augmentation in the U.S. is roughly $8,000, but in Thailand, it averages $4,350. And rhinoplasty (nose surgery), which costs an average of almost $8,500 in the U.S., goes for an average of $6,500 in Thailand.
Home to the storied city of Istanbul, the iconic hot air balloons of Cappadocia and the thermal spas of Pamukkale, Turkey beckons tens of millions of travelers each year. In 2018, Turkey welcomed more than 850,000 medical tourists from 149 countries, according to the Turkish Healthcare Travel Council. That figure has increased tenfold in 10 years. And although the pandemic caused a sizable dip in those numbers, just in the first half of 2022, Turkey attracted nearly 600,000 people for medical services, according to the website of USHAŞ, a Turkish state-owned healthcare company.
The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery also ranks Turkey among the top 10 countries performing the most popular cosmetic surgeries, including breast augmentation, liposuction and rhinoplasty. The average costs for those surgeries in Turkey are $3,720, $2,655 and $3,100, respectively; Americans can expect to save anywhere from 50% to 65%, on average, on the most popular cosmetic surgeries. Turkey also notably offers affordable options for patients seeking bariatric surgery, such as gastric band or gastric bypass procedures.
Another warm destination that’s home to beautiful beaches and national parks, Colombia also attracts medical tourists from the States. Although Colombia is not a major player in the medical tourism industry, it is home to several large, very good cardiology centers that attract international patients, says Woodman. And, “oddly enough, cardiology is a pretty safe bet for medical travel because the recovery rates and the success rates are really high,” he says. Heart surgery in the U.S. can cost upward of $100,000, but Bogotá is known for its work in the field of cardiology, and practitioners there generally offer the same procedures for a fraction of the cost. Round-trip flights to Bogotá from major U.S. cities were recently available for about $350, and a typical hotel stay in the city rarely tops $100 per night (it’s often just $30 to $50 per night).
Knees and Hips
A decade ago, India was the leading destination for medical tourists seeking non-emergency orthopedic procedures, such as knee and hip surgery. But nowadays, Costa Rica offers a number of reputable options for orthopedic care closer to home. The medical tourism industry accounted for more than 5% of the country’s gross domestic product in 2020. And the savings are significant: Americans can expect to save anywhere from 60% to 70% on popular nonemergency orthopedic surgeries, such as hip replacement and knee replacement. Those procedures cost an average of $13,250 and $14,330, respectively in Costa Rica, according to Medical Departures.
Round-trip fares to San José, Costa Rica, from major U.S. cities, have recently been as low as about $350, and hotel rates range from around $70 to $100 per night. Costa Rica also offers high-quality care in a number of other categories.
Fertility treatments in the U.S. cost a small fortune, and many couples undergo three treatments or more. The average cost of a single round of IVF is $14,500 in the U.S., according to Medical Departures, but it can cost as much as $25,000. And after Roe v. Wade was overturned, some U.S. states have even proposed legislation that would threaten the routine practice of IVF altogether.
Enter Barbados: a tropical island home to white sand beaches, crystal blue waters and one of the only JCI-certified fertility centers in the world. Only a hop, skip and a jump away from the continental U.S. (approximately 2,772 miles), round-trip flights from major U.S. cities have recently been as low as $340. Hotels in Hastings range from about $100 to $250 per night. Marketing itself as a facility in a stress-free paradise with high success rates, the JCI-certified Barbados Fertility Centre in Hastings charges just $6,500 for each IVF treatment — less than half the national average in the U.S.
Israel is a major destination for IVF procedures, thanks in part to the fact that Israel provides free IVF for Israeli couples for their first two children (for mothers up to age 45). The country has the highest rate of IVF in the world, and roughly 5% of all Israeli births are a result of the procedure, according to Health Ministry data from 2017. Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are home to some of the largest fertility centers in Israel, and they are among the most advanced in the world, says Woodman. Figures on the costs of IVF treatments in Israel are scarce, but some patients report lower costs than in the U.S.
Cancer patients have a unique set of needs when it comes to medical tourism. Although not every patient’s condition is suitable for medical travel, the desire for travel while receiving critical care has inspired some cancer patients to go abroad for treatment. “That’s pretty much plug and play around the world now,” says Josef Woodman, CEO of Patients Beyond Borders. “If you get your prescription for your radiation and for your chemo, then you can travel and get it done.”
Singapore is a global hub for cancer treatments, home to some of the highest-quality care available worldwide, says Woodman. The southeastern Asia island city-state welcomes an estimated 500,000 medical travelers annually, according to Yusof Ishak Institute Singapore, a government research engine.
Emma Patch joined Kiplinger in 2020. She previously interned for Kiplinger's Retirement Report and before that, for a boutique investment firm in New York City. She served as editor-at-large and features editor for Middlebury College's student newspaper, The Campus. She specializes in travel, student debt and a number of other personal finance topics. Born in London, Emma grew up in Connecticut and now lives in Washington, D.C.
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