Health Care on Holiday

Patients and insurers are increasingly packing their carry-on bags for medical procedures


Image by Flickr user: DFID - UK Department for International Development / Creative Commons

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Not long ago, vacationers kept their fingers crossed when they were traveling abroad. Spending time in a hospital and going under the knife were best kept close to home. Today, however, more and more Americans are traveling specifically to obtain medical care in foreign facilities.  

The appeal? Cost. “For those who can’t afford to wait for health reform to kick in, medical tourism may be the way to go,” writes Luc Hatlestad in the Denver-based monthly 5280 (Jan. 2011). He cites one example of a person saving around $10,000 by going to Costa Rica for dental implants.  

Companies like MedVacation are hustling to keep up with the trend. The “medical travel agent” orchestrates all arrangements, from finding doctors to booking flights. In vitro fertilization, plastic surgery, and dental work are the most common overseas procedures they coordinate, and other treatments are around the corner.  

A twist in the medical-tourism phenomenon is the increased involvement of insurance companies, which are also looking to cut costs. “Even large insurers are interested,” Hatlestad reports. “Big boys such as Cigna and Blue Cross and Blue Shield have either added or are looking into adding medical tourism coverage”—confusing news to people who can’t get a root canal covered at their local dentist.

Cover-165-thumbnailThis article first appeared in the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader.