What You Need to Know About Medical Tourism

Originally published by Justine Davies, February 28, 2017

Before you book that next trip to Thailand for cheap medical fees, you should consider the risks of travelling abroad for medical procedures.

Medical tourism is popular. Around 12,800 Australians travel overseas for medical reasons each year, and this number is growing as healthcare here continues to increase in cost.

It’s even more popular in other countries with more expensive health care systems than ours, such as the USA. Patients Without Borders estimates that around 1.4 million Americans travelled overseas for medical tourism purposes in 2016.

There are estimates that globally, it’s a $100 billion industry. According to the Consumers Health Forum of Australia, $300 million of that may be originating from Australia. Some health funds even offer overseas cosmetic treatment packages.

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What is Medical Tourism?

Medical tourism involves travelling abroad for the purpose of receiving medical care. High medical fees domestically can force people to shop for medical help internationally, as prices can be lower than getting the procedures performed at home. The most common procedures include dental, cosmetic, organ transplants, cardiac surgery, and orthopedic surgery.

The ‘tourism’ part of medical tourism allows people to make their overseas trip a holiday, taking in new sights and culture. Accommodation also is generally cheaper than domestic prices.

Travelling overseas for a medical procedure can be a cost-effective option – but there are a number of issues that potential patients should weigh up before booking an airfare and a procedure. Here are a few of the main considerations:

  • The qualifications of the medical practitioner
  • The quality of medical care
  • The risk of medical complications

Qualifications of the medical practitioner

It goes without saying that patients should check the qualifications of anyone who is going to perform a medical procedure on them. Does the medical professional hold an internationally recognized qualification? “We advise anyone considering surgery overseas to ask questions about the qualifications of not just the surgeon, but other healthcare staff,” says the President of the Australian Society of Plastic Surgeons, Dr Geoff Lyons.

“Australian dentists and medical practitioners provide a level of quality of service not matched in many parts of the world.”

Quality of medical care

What are the medical standards of care and quality control requirements in the targeted country and facility? Australians’ main source markets for medical tourism destinations are Papua New Guinea and New Caledonia, according to a Deloitte report in 2011.

Globally, the top destination countries for medical tourism include Costa Rica, India, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, and the United States (Patients Beyond Borders) – a wide range of destinations with widely diverse medical standards.

“Australian dentists and medical practitioners provide a level of quality of service not matched in many parts of the world,” comments the President of the Australian Dental Association, Dr Karin Alexander.

“They do this in a tight regulatory environment which covers the practitioners, the practice surgery, the methodology of treatment delivered and the environment in which it is delivered, such as infection control etc. and the use of quality assured materials and equipment. There are few countries in the world that match this level of safety and quality.”

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Risk of medical complications

If your overseas procedures don’t meet the standard you were hoping for, you could find that the eventual cost is far more than the original “holiday” price.

“Our members regularly deal with rectifying complications arising from cosmetic procedures that have been performed in overseas facilities,” observes Dr Lyons. “Often these patients find what they thought was a cheaper option ends up costing them more as costs blow out if revision surgery is required when they return to Australia.”

Remember that your private health insurance won’t usually cover you for overseas procedures.

You might also find, if something goes wrong and you can’t complete your holiday, your travel insurance may not cover you. Always let your travel insurance fund know that the reason for your holiday is to seek medical treatment.

Of course, some travel insurance companies are taking a different route, offering policies specifically designed for medical tourism. Find out more here.

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Limited recourse

Not all medical mistakes can be rectified and your life may be financially impacted in the event of malpractice. Legal recourse against an overseas-based medical practitioner could be extremely difficult.

“A patient would need to navigate medical complaints and legal systems abroad if they wished to take action against a healthcare provider or facility in the event of malpractice and/or a serious complication of medical treatment,” says Peter Leggat AM, MD, FAFPHM, Professor and Acting Dean, College of Public Health, Medical and Veterinary Sciences, James Cook University.

“They may find that foreigners have limited or no protection or support in such a system and there may be significant differences in the medical complaints and legal systems.”

Potential patients should discuss their intentions with their general practitioner before they leave and research their options exhaustively. Some other resources are listed below:

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