Photo: George Rudy/Shutterstock

What You Need to Know Before Traveling Abroad for Medical Treatments

Wellness Travel Safety
by Rebecca Toy Nov 22, 2019

Saving thousands (if not tens of thousands) while having both a safe medical procedure and a beach vacation sounds too good to be true. But every year millions of medical tourists across the globe are sharing ecstatic stories of wild savings and positive results. Medical tourism has arrived and business is booming.

Skeptics say cheaper, international procedures are dangerous. They point to horror stories of inexperienced doctors and unsanitary conditions. In reality, most of the savings come from drastically lower costs in labor and malpractice insurance. And if you do your research right, this doesn’t have to mean worse care. Here’s your complete guide on what you need to ask, how to find your answers, where to go, and who can help you.

Editor’s Note: Matador Network does not endorse any specific medical treatments and encourages everyone to thoroughly research all risks associated with medical treatments, domestically and abroad.

How much will this cost

You’re going to save money, even with travel costs (up to 90 percent savings, in some cases) but you’ll still want a sense of how much this will cost and how to avoid those hidden costs that add up quickly.

To get your budget situated, first check these things:

  • If you have medical insurance, does it cover anything internationally?
  • If you have medical insurance, will it help you find providers abroad?
  • If something goes wrong will either your medical or travel insurance cover costs?

Surprisingly, some medical insurance companies in the US give incentives for traveling abroad. Some offer discounts equal to a copay. Others offer a percentage of reimbursement. A few even provide case managers to help you with both travel and procedure plans.

Your best bet is to contact your insurer directly about your specific plan. Advocate for some coverage if they don’t already offer it. Money that patients save internationally is also money saved for insurers.

Most people don’t have international medical coverage (or insurance coverage at all). Several sites will give you an estimate. Patients Beyond Borders is one of the most respected resources for medical tourism and regularly provides cost comparisons by procedure and country as well as accredited recommendations. Treatment Abroad also narrows down specific procedures and average treatment quotes.

It’s best to plan for the worst-case scenario. Check with both your medical and travel insurance to see if they cover things like emergency transport to another facility, evacuation, or unplanned procedures as a result of a complication. Many do not so read the fine print and budget accordingly.

What you need in a doctor

No matter where you are, you want a good doctor. Put these on your list as must-haves before you book a procedure:

  • A physician or surgeon that specializes in your procedure
  • A doctor that has comprehensive and up-to-standards training
  • A doctor that speaks your (primary) language
  • A physician or surgeon that doesn’t have disciplinary actions

Many physicians and surgeons around the world did their training/residency at internationally respected programs. Identify the specific doctor that is doing your procedure and find out where they did their training. You’re looking for doctors who studied and practiced at a Joint Commission International facility, the current international gold standard.

Reviews of doctors get a bit more complicated. Internet reviews can be easily manufactured on general searches and shouldn’t be your only source. Some countries don’t have databases that keep track of malpractice suits, board sanctions, and disciplinary action, but if there is one available where your doctor practices, look them up. Or check out medical tourism agencies that will research for you.

What to ask about your medical staff

Properly trained medical staff are an often overlooked necessity. Nurses everywhere catch complications before and after procedures. Having well-trained nurses and techs are the difference between quality international clinics and a risky experience.

Get these answers before booking any procedure:

  • What is the minimum level of training required for the staff working with you?
  • Where are most of the staff trained/who trains them?
  • Will the staff that work with you speak your preferred language?

You want a facility with a minimum standard of education for all its nurses and techs through an accredited program. Inconsistency is risky. No need to gamble with the day of your procedure being the day the untrained staff is on duty.

A common language is most important here. You see your nurses more than anyone else and you want to be able to communicate clearly with them if something comes up. You may be multilingual, but remember that when under duress we communicate best in our first language.

What to look for in a facility

You have your doctor and you have your staff and the odds are good they will be at a reputable facility. Double-check. Hospitals have banded together to create international standards as good as, if not better, than the minimum requirements in developed countries. The Joint Commission International (JCI) designation is the best guarantee you can get.

There are a few other things to consider:

  • Does the facility have an intensive care unit (ICU) if there’s a serious problem?
  • If they don’t have ICU is there a hospital nearby? Will your facility send patients quickly to a higher level of care if complications come up?
  • When was their last equipment update?
  • What kind of food do they provide?

This is the reality: Hope for everything to go well, but plan for major complications. You really want to be at a facility that can respond to an emergency or one that partners with a (very) nearby hospital that can. Even minor procedures can go awry. You don’t want to be far from urgent care (which is also why it’s also a good idea to stay near this care when recovering instead of heading to more remote locations).

Food might seem like a weird ask on this list, but consider the everyday issues our guts have when we travel. When we have major procedures our bodies also struggle with processing anything too strenuous or unfamiliar. Post-surgery is not the time to explore foreign, and potentially unsettling, foods.

Where to go for medical treatments

Now, the fun part: picking the destination. There are traditional favorites in enticing locations, but safe options are rapidly expanding every year. The world is wide open.

These are perennial contenders for the most popular medical and dental destinations:

  • Costa Rica
  • Thailand
  • Malaysia
  • India
  • Mexico
  • Singapore

As global medical tourism grows by at least 20 percent every year, two things are happening. One, popular destinations are improving their service to stay competitive. They are not only cutting edge with medical practices but are offering spa-like experiences still at a fraction of the price.

Two, new destinations are gaining ground. In the last few years, medical tourism has made its mark in Eastern European countries such as Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, and Estonia. These countries are benefiting from low labor costs, grants from the EU to boost facilities, and an overflow of medical experts from other European countries.

Some places are known for specialties. High-quality dental care abounds in Central and South America. Brazil and Thailand are known for their experts in cosmetic surgeries. Singapore has a prestigious standing in internal medicine and general surgery.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, no worries. Medical tourism brokers bring all the planning together for you. They highlight the most popular destinations for your procedure and handle all the research to ensure your safety. Case managers will help you organize every part of the experience, including the travel itself. Both Patients Beyond Borders and Medigo back up their recommendations with copious amounts of screening. But these services are also growing to meet demand and there are a lot of options out there.

What to remember for returning home

Unpleasant but predictable surprises may be waiting for you on the way back. Nothing a little planning can’t solve. Here is what to know before you leave:

  • Will your regular physician provide aftercare for an international procedure?
  • Will your medical insurance will cover any aftercare complications that might come up when you are back home?
  • How long does a doctor who knows you recommend you wait before flying home?
  • What are your country’s rules for “personal importation”?

Don’t assume that your doctor and insurance will be business as usual when your return. Many doctors are leery of medical tourism and don’t want to take on the potential risks for both you and their practice. If your doctor won’t do the aftercare, have one ready that will.

Many insurance companies won’t cover complications if you didn’t meet their standards first. In recent years US insurers Aetna, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, and UnitedHealth have allowed “tens of thousands” of people to receive care at approved international hospitals and then return home for covered aftercare. The key is checking with your insurance company first for authorization.

While you don’t want to have a procedure and then rush off to vacation in a remote area, you also don’t want to have a procedure and board a plane. Complications like blood clots can be lethal. Your providers overseas will give you guidelines for flying, but getting an opinion from a doctor who knows your medical background is best.

Last but not least, time to get familiar with the term “personal importation.” This tells you what you can bring into your country and how you can bring it. The US, EU, Canada, and Australia have a few rules in common when bringing medication and devices in:

  • Get a letter and a prescription from your doctor in your country’s language
  • Bring no more than 90 days worth of medication into the country (30 is safest)

The US, in particular, is known for high-cost prescriptions and more stringent limitations. If your medication doesn’t have FDA approval, you may have a hassle flying it in. After all, it is technically illegal despite the many ongoing FDA versus pharmacy battles.

The highest risk procedure that doctors want you to avoid

Unfortunately, the riskiest medical procedure is often a matter of life and death. International organ transplants are extremely controversial in the medical field. Experts across the world report a high and still rising number of black market organs (particularly kidneys) in international transplant operations. These have both serious medical and ethical issues. Black market transplant organs are poorly handled and have a significantly higher risk of rejection, disease, and infection. Several countries are also on watch due to illegal practices in obtaining donor organs (scamming living donors, using organs from political prisoners, and suspicion of murder). For all of these reasons, many physicians do not provide aftercare for those who had overseas organ transplants and are adamant that patients refuse solicitation from organ sellers.

Discover Matador