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In his new book, Patients Beyond Borders: Everybody’s Guide to Affordable, World Class Tourism, author Josef Woodman offers a comprehensive manual for how you can see the world and get many of your surgical needs met—all at a cost that may be cheaper than having the procedure done at your local hospital. But that doesn’t mean you should start packing now. Preparing for surgery overseas requires lots of homework. In this excerpt, Woodman tells you how to get organized.

When my father was 72, he traveled to Mexico for extensive dental work. When I first heard his plans, I felt a mixture of bewilderment and fear. But I knew that despite my protestations, he was going anyway.

Dad and his wife, Alinda, selected a U.S. trained dentist in Puerto Vallarta and paid around $11,000, which included two weeks of noodling around the Pacific Coast. They returned tanned and smiling, Dad with new pearly whites and Alinda with an impromptu skin resurfacing. In the States, Dad’s procedure would have cost him $24,000—double what it cost south of the border.

My dad was a health travel pioneer. In his day, finding quality care abroad was a far more arduous task than it is now. In a few short years, big government investment, corporate partnerships and increased media attention have spawned a new industry—medical tourism—which is bringing with it a host of encouraging new choices for patients. Individuals can now choose from a smorgasbord of safe, reliable options for diagnosis and treatment, ranging from dental care and cosmetic surgery to some of the more dramatic and expensive procedures, such as hip replacement or heart valve surgery.

An Impartial Perspective

International health travel has received a good deal of attention of late. While one newspaper or blog giddily touts the fun ‘n’ sun travel side of treatment abroad, another issues dire, Code Blue warnings about filthy hospitals, shady treatment practices and procedures gone bad. My research has convinced me that with diligence, perseverance and good information, patients considering traveling abroad for treatment have safe choices, not to mention an opportunity to save thousands of dollars over the same procedure here in the U.S. Hundreds of patients who have returned from successful treatment overseas provide overwhelmingly positive feedback. They convinced me that I should write this guide to becoming a savvy, informed international patient. I designed it to help readers reach their own conclusions about whether and when to seek treatment abroad.

Last year, more than 150,000 Americans, Canadians and Europeans packed their bags and headed overseas for nearly every imaginable type of treatment: tummy tucks in Brazil, heart valve replacement in Thailand, hip resurfacing surgery in India, addiction recovery in Antigua, fertility diagnoses and treatments in South Africa, thalassotherapy in Hungary or restorative oral dentistry in Mexico.

Currently, at least 28 countries on four continents cater to the international health traveler, with more than a million patients visiting hospitals and clinics each year in countries other than their own. The roster of treatments is nearly as varied as the travelers.

As baby boomers become senior boomers, they’ve begun to find that their health care and prescription costs devour nearly 30 percent of their retirement and pre retirement incomes. But with the word out about top quality treatments at deep discounts overseas, informed patients are finding they have an alternative. Uninsured and underinsured patients, as well as those seeking elective care, can realize 15-85 percent savings over the cost of treatment in the U.S., depending upon the country and type of treatment. Or, as one successful health traveler put it, “I took out my credit card instead of a second mortgage on my home.”

A patient from Santa Ana, California, whom I’ll call Margaret, was quoted $6,600 for a tooth extraction, two implants and two crowns. One of the 120 million Americans without dental insurance, she had heard of less expensive dental care abroad. Through a friend, she learned about Escazu, Costa Rica, known for its excellent dental and cosmetic surgery clinics. Margaret got the same treatment in Costa Rica for $2,600. Her dentist was a U.S. trained oral surgeon, who used state of the art instrumentation and top quality materials. Add in airfare, lodging, meals, and other travel costs, and this savvy global patient still came out way ahead.

Then there’s a man I’ll call Doug S., a small business owner from Wisconsin, who journeyed with his wife, Anne, to Chennai, India, for a double hip resurfacing procedure that would have cost more than $55,000 in the U.S. The total bill, including travel for him and his wife, lodging, meals and two week recuperation in a five star beach hotel was $14,000. “We were treated like royalty,” said Doug, “and I’m riding a bicycle for the first time in six years. We could not have afforded this operation in the U.S.”

Big Surgeries: Comparative Costs in Asia and Southeast Asia
Procedure US Cost India Thailand Singapore Malaysia
Heart Bypass: $130,000+ $10,000 $11,000 $18,500 $9,000
Heart Valve
Replacement: $160,000 $9,000 $10,000 $12,500 $9,000
Angioplasty: $57,000 $11,000 $13,000 $13,000 $11,000
Hip Replacement: $43,000 $9,000 $12,000 $12,000 $10,000
Hysterectomy: $20,000 $3,000 $4,500 $6,000 $3,000
Knee Replacement: $40,000 $8,500 $10,00 $13,000 $8,000
Spinal Fusion: $62,000 $5,500 $7,000 $9,000 $6,000

The above costs are for surgery, including hospital stay. Airfare and lodging costs are governed by individual preferences. To compute a ballpark estimate of total costs, add $5,000 for you and a companion, figuring coach airfare and hotel rooms averaging $150 per night. For example, a hip replacement in Bangkok, Thailand, would cost about $17,000, for an estimated savings of $26,000 over treatment in the U.S.
Dentistry: Comparative Costs in Popular Destinations

Procedure US Cost Mexico Costa Rica South Africa Thailand
Implants: $2,400 $1,500 $1,650 $2,000 $1,600
(upper and lower): $1,600 $1,000 $1,100 $1,700 $900
Crowns: $800 $375 $400 $800 $270
Porcelain Veneers: $800 $120 $160 $300 $240
Inlays and Onlays: $420 $220 $240 $320 $300
Surgical Extractions: $260 $120 $120 $250 $120
Root Canals: $750 $260 $280 $400 $110

The estimates above are for treatments alone. Airfare, hospital stay (if any) and lodging vary considerably. Savings on dentistry becomes more dramatic when “big mouth work” is required, involving several teeth or full restorations. Savings of $15,000 or more are common.

Better Quality Care

Veteran health travelers know that facilities, instrumentation and customer service in treatment centers abroad often equal or exceed those found in the U.S. In fact, governments of countries like India and Thailand have poured billions of dollars into improving their health care systems, which are now aggressively catering to the international health traveler. VIP waiting lounges, deluxe hospital suites, and staffed recuperation resorts are common amenities, along with free transportation to and from airports, low cost meal plans for companions and discounted hotels affiliated with the hospital.

Moreover, physicians and staff in treatment centers abroad are often far more accessible than their U.S. counterparts. “My surgeon gave me his cell phone number, and I spoke directly with him at least a dozen times during my stay,” said David P., who traveled to Bangkok for a heart valve replacement procedure.

Even the most robust health insurance plans exclude a variety of conditions and treatments. You, the policyholder, must pay these expenses out of pocket. Although health insurance policies vary according to the underwriter and individual, your plan probably excludes such treatments as cosmetic surgeries, dental care, vision treatments, reproductive/infertility procedures, certain non emergency cardiovascular and orthopedic surgeries, weight loss and substance abuse rehabilitation programs as well as prosthetics. In addition, many policies place restrictions on prescriptions, which can be quite expensive, as well as post operative care, congenital disorders and pre-existing conditions.

Facing increasingly expensive costs at home, nearly 40 percent of American health travelers hit the road for elective treatments. In countries such as Costa Rica, Singapore, Dubai, and Thailand, this trend has spawned entire industries, offering excellent treatment and ancillary facilities at costs far lower than U.S. prices.

Specialty Treatments

Some procedures and prescriptions are simply not allowed in this country. Either Congress or the FDA has specifically disallowed a certain procedure, or perhaps it’s still in the testing and clinical trials stage or was only recently approved. Such treatments are often offered abroad. One example is an orthopedic procedure known as hip resurfacing. For many patients, this represents a far superior, longer lasting and less expensive alternative to the traditional hip replacement still practiced in the U.S. While this procedure has been performed for more than a decade throughout Europe and Asia, it was only recently approved in the U.S., and the procedure’s availability here remains spotty and unproven. Hundreds of forward thinking Americans, many having suffered years of chronic pain, have found relief in India, where hip resurfacing techniques, materials and instrumentation have been perfected into a routine procedure.

Although traveling abroad for medical care can often be challenging, many patients welcome the chance to blaze a new trail and find the creature comforts offered abroad a welcome relief from the sterile, impersonal hospital environments of many U.S. treatment facilities. For others, simply being in a new and interesting culture lends distraction to an otherwise worrisome, tedious process. Getting away from the myriad obligations of home and professional life can yield healthful effects at a stressful time. What’s more travel—and particularly international travel—can be a life changing experience. You might be humbled by the limousine ride from Indira Gandhi International Airport to a hotel in central New Delhi, struck by the simple, elegant graciousness of professionals and ordinary people in a foreign land or wowed by the sheer beauty of the mountain range outside a dental office window. As one veteran medical traveler put it,

“I brought back far more from this trip than a new set of teeth.”

Planning Your Journey

If you decide that a medical trip is right for you, research several physicians, clinics or hospitals that offer the treatment you need. Don’t snap up the first option you find. Plan as far in advance as you can as well. Three months lead time is good. Six months is great. But one month is generally not sufficient time. .... continued in ABILITY Magazine

ABILITY Magazine
Other articles in the Ty Pennington issue include Humor Therapy — Wheel Fun!: Headlines — National Employment Month; PTSD: Mentor Day — Disability Legal Right Center : Eve Hill — Honoring a Winner: Matt King — Building Accessibility Into Your Computer: Yoga & MS — Ancient Practice/New Mobility: Got Soy? — What’s the Fuss?: Green Pages — Recycling 101: Recipes — It’s Greek To Us: Breast Cancer — Think Pink and Grace Wright: Patients Beyond Borders — Budget Surgery Abroad: Tom Olin — Chief Photographer of the ABILITY Movement ABILITY's Crossword Puzzle; Events and Conferences...subscribe

More excerpts from theTy Pennington issue:

Ty Pennington — From ADHD To ABC

Jamie Schubert — Whoop De Doo To Cancer

Cynthia Basinet — Finding Her Voice

Patients Beyond Borders — Budget Surgery Abroad

Yoga & MS — Ancient Practice/New Mobility

Got Soy? — What's the Fuss?

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