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Traveling for Treatment: Weighing the Risks of Medical Tourism

article for cosmetic surgerySuppose you need surgery and cannot afford it. Or maybe you want to try an experimental treatment that is not available in the United States. You could be seeking cosmetic surgery, but find that the costs are too high. What are your options?

A growing number of people in the United States are seeking medical treatment in unlikely places—overseas hospitals. Traveling internationally for medical care is often referred to as medical tourism. But, it may not be as carefree as your average vacation. If your vacation destination is a hospital rather than a hotel, you have a lot more to consider than your fellow vacationers do.

Treatments Sought Abroad

Seeking overseas treatment may seem far-fetched, but it is more common than you might think. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that up to 750,000 United States residents travel abroad for care each year. The most common treatments people will travel for include:

Why Travel for Treatment?

Cost is one of the most common reasons for traveling abroad for medical care. This is especially true for cosmetic surgeries, which are not usually covered by health insurance. Even for a surgery that is covered by medical insurance, the overall costs of travel and surgery for places like Thailand or India may be less than you would pay at home.

The cost savings is tempting for individuals, but some health insurance companies are even getting in on the savings by offering benefits for individuals who are willing to travel overseas for treatment.

Saving with your insurance company could even apply to domestic medical tourism (getting treatment at another hospital within the United States). Some employers have found that they can reduce their insurance costs by up to 40% by offering employees financial incentives to seek care at less expensive hospitals.

But there’s a lot more to healthcare than cost. You want to be treated by qualified doctors in clean, sanitary conditions. You want to be sure that you are getting the best care possible. So if you are thinking of traveling overseas for a surgery or another procedure, you should carefully weigh the risks against the potential cost savings.

What Are the Risks?

If traveling to an exotic location to get medical care for a fraction of what it would cost at home sounds too good to be true, it just might be. Any surgery or medical procedure involves risks, but having surgery overseas may have even more risks.

Consistent Care

If you have ever had a major surgery, you know there is a lot more involved than showing up at the hospital on time. Before a major medical procedure, your doctor does tests and helps you prepare for surgery. The time you spend with your doctor after surgery can be just as important. Your doctor monitors healing and watches for infection. You may also need special nursing care or therapy after a surgery.

If you are thinking about traveling overseas for a procedure, it is important to think about how you will manage care both before and after surgery. The American College of Surgeons recommends getting a complete set of your medical records before returning home. Patients should also determine if they will have insurance coverage in case there are complications that result from an overseas surgery. Should you have complications and need to seek help after returning home, you will want to make sure that your doctor knows the details of your recent care.

Legal Complications

If you are being treated in the Unites States, you have legal protection should something go wrong and your doctor can be proved to be at fault. You may not have the same protections in a foreign country.

Cultural Differences

When seeking medical care overseas, there are even more to think about. Communication with an overseas medical team might be difficult due to language differences. Also, religious or ethical differences might complicate certain issues, like taking extreme measures to save a life or deciding to remove a limb. If you choose an overseas hospital, be sure you know their stance on issues like these.

Finding Qualified Medical Care

So what if seeking treatment overseas is your only option? Whether because of finances or some other reason, the most important thing at this stage is to find the best care that you can. When looking for a hospital overseas, seek those that have met the standards of recognized accreditation organizations.

Organizations like Joint Commission International work to improve safety and the quality of care in international medical institutions. Institutions must meet certain standards to be accredited. Choosing an overseas hospital that has been accredited by an international organization reduces your risk of adverse events due to substandard care.

Surgeons and anesthesiologists licensed in the United States get their certification through a rigorous process established by the American Board of Medical Specialties. If you are going to be under the care of a doctor or surgeon overseas, you will want to make sure they have been certified by an equivalent process in their country.

As with any medical procedure, it is important to educate yourself about the risks and benefits. Know the risks of traveling for medical care, and weigh them carefully before booking your trip.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Joint Commission International


Alberta Health

Canadian Patient Safety Institute


Appleby J. Latest destination for medical tourism: The United States. Kaiser Health News website. Available at: http://khn.org/news/domestic-medical-tourism. Accessed July 19, 2016.

The dangers of plastic surgery tourism. American Society of Plastic Surgeons website. Available at: http://www.plasticsurgery.org/patient-safety/dangers-of-plastic-surgery-tourism.html. Accessed July 19, 2016.

Medical tourism: Getting medical care in another country. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/Features/MedicalTourism. Updated June 15, 2016. Accessed July 19, 2016.

Medical tourism: Have insurance card, will travel. National Center for Policy Analysis website. Available at: http://www.ncpa.org/pub/ba724. Accessed July 19, 2016.

Statement on medical tourism and surgical tourism. American College of Surgeons website. Available at: https://www.facs.org/about-acs/statements/65-surgical-tourism. Accessed July 19, 2016.

Last reviewed July 2016 by Michael Woods, MD  Last Updated: 7/19/2016