Patients who travel in search of medical care are called medical tourists. The practice is common with Americans who often travel in search of medical care that is more affordable. While the United States has state-of-the-art medical facilities, it is the most expensive healthcare system in the world, with the brunt of the cost placed on the individual patient. Learn more about five popular countries for American medical tourists.
💡 Fast Facts
- Close to 1.6 million Americans will travel abroad to get medical procedures in 2021.
- Medical tourism generates around $20-$35 billion per year.
- Health spending per person in the U.S. was 43% higher than Switzerland, the country with the next highest per capita health spending.
- The American healthcare product and the pharmaceutical industry spend 95% more on lobbying than the industry with the next highest spending.
Why Americans Go Abroad for Medical Care
Millions of medical tourists from the United States leave the country for medical care, and most do so in search of more affordable treatments. The reason can be traced to the marketization of healthcare.
According to the Center for Studying Health System Change, mergers and partnerships between medical providers and insurers are on the rise. Provider consolidation and profit-driven partnerships between insurers and providers reduce market competition, which would normally keep pricing in check.
Driven by a desire to make billions of dollars, insurance companies and healthcare providers have worked together to drive up the cost of care and have done so without significant government oversight.
- The U.S. spends 42% more per capita on healthcare than Switzerland, the country with the next highest per capita spending.
- Healthcare product providers and pharmaceutical companies spend more on lobbying than any other industry by 95%.
In response to higher prices, insurance companies pass on the cost to consumers by raising insurance premiums and deductibles. They also make it even harder for patients to have claims covered, often going to great lengths to deny coverage despite pocketing billions of dollars in premiums.
Top Reasons for Medical Tourism
- Cost: Save 30 to 90% on services
- Coverage: Access treatments, including elective ones, that are not covered by insurance
- Innovation: Receive experimental treatments that may not be approved in the U.S.
The most common procedures sought by medical tourists include dental care, surgery, cosmetic surgery, fertility treatments, organ and tissue transplantation, and cancer treatment.
5 Popular Countries for American Medical Tourists
Popular for Diagnostic Tests and Joint Replacements
According to a 2020 survey by MTA, Canada is the world’s most popular destination for medical tourism. For Americans, Canada’s close proximity, high-quality facilities, more affordable services and lack of a language barrier make it a top choice for a wide variety of medical treatments.
Among the most popular services are diagnostic tests, like coronary angiography, as well as joint replacements. Americans also travel to Canada for some inpatient services, like drug and alcohol rehabilitation, among other things.
The United States and Canada have very different healthcare systems. Canada has a decentralized, universal and publicly-funded medicare, which eliminates the need for private insurance for most types of healthcare. As a result, healthcare costs are much lower than they are in the U.S.
For example, an angiogram to look for clogged arteries costs approximately $35 in Canada but up to $2,341 in the US.
However, while the savings in Canada are appealing to Americans, Canadians are also known to travel for treatments that are even cheaper elsewhere.
Popular for Prescription Drugs and Dental Care
Mexico’s proximity to the United States makes it a good option for medical tourists. In major cities, there is extensive crossover in medical training. The standard of care is equivalent to what you would receive at home, but for much less money.
Mexico is particularly popular for dentistry. So much so, that there are numerous dental practices along the border that cater to American clientele.
It is also very popular for Americans to buy prescription drugs in Mexico for reduced costs. For the most part, you can buy medications in Mexico without a prescription. Mexican pharmacists will fill U.S. prescriptions, or you can visit a Mexican doctor for a prescription, which helps ensure you are getting the correct dosage and type of medication.
You’ll need to declare any medication you purchased in Mexico to U.S. border agents. Take note that it is legal to bring up to a three-month personal supply of FDA-approved meds into the US. as long as the drugs are in their original containers and are not on a controlled substance list.
Popular for Cosmetic Surgery
Modeled after the Mayo Clinic, Bumrungrad is recognized as a leading medical tourism destination. In 2018, the hospital treated more than 520,000 international patients from over 190 different countries. Many doctors in Thailand are trained in Western countries or Singapore and speak excellent English.
In addition to medically necessary treatments, Thailand also has a reputation as a haven for elective cosmetic surgeries. For example, a rhinoplasty that might cost $4,500 in the U.S. would cost under $1,200 in Thailand.
Popular for IVF
Israel is a highly developed nation with a bilingual population and first-class health care and facilities, which have been at the forefront of many medical breakthroughs. Recently it has become popular for medical tourists.
Herzliya Medical Center, a privately owned hospital, has accreditation and certification from Blue Cross Blue Shield for medical tourism procedures, and other hospitals make it easy for tourists by taking care of all the necessary paperwork.
One of Israel’s specialties is in vitro fertilization (IVF). A standard IVF cycle in Israel costs as little as $5,000 to $6,000, including all the tests and treatments. Comparable treatments in the U.S. average $12,000 or more.
5. Costa Rica
Popular for Dental Care
Costa Rica, like Mexico, is a popular destination for medical care, including dentistry. Approximately 40,000 people visited Costa Rica last year for medical treatments. Of those, 15,000 came for dental care. The nation uses the U.S. dollar, making it easier for tourists to pay for reduced-cost treatment.
In Costa Rica, you can expect to pay around $550 for a single dental implant and abutment that would cost you a minimum of $3,000 in the U.S. Even with plane tickets and accommodation, it is still much less expensive.
The Pros and Cons of Medical Tourism
Medical tourism is not without its risks. While most of the countries on this list have highly trained doctors and state-of-the-art medical facilities, care standards can vary.
|Lower medical costs||Traveling while ill may be difficult or detrimental to a patient’s health|
|Increased privacy||Language barriers and communication challenges|
|Access to experimental or innovative treatments not yet available in the U.S.||Lack of continuity of care after returning home|
|Special treatment and access to luxury care in places where American medical tourists are viewed as VIPs||Negative reaction to experimental or unapproved treatments|
|Allows patient to view treatment as a vacation which can have a positive mental impact||Bypass U.S. rules, including stringent board certifications, that are in place to protect patients from risk and harm|
|Some foreign providers may be inexperienced or poorly trained|
It is essential to research hospitals, doctors and pharmacies to ensure that they are well-reviewed and provide high quality care from trained and experienced providers.
Some patients opt to use medical tourism agencies to find overseas providers suited to the care needed. These for-profit agencies can offer peace of mind to medical tourists for a fee.