Medical Tourism Is Booming, Fueled by High Costs and Slow Access

Bridget Snell traveled to Mexico to access an unapproved stem cell therapy for MS.

(Photo credits Suzanne Ouellette, left, and Christian Fregnan on Unsplash)


When Bridget Snell found out she had multiple sclerosis, she knew she would put up a fight. The 45 year-old mother of two, who lives in Duxbury, Mass., researched options to slow the progress of the disease. The methods she had been trying were invasive, often with side effects of their own.

An estimated 2.2 million Americans will travel abroad for medical care in 2020.

Then she stumbled upon autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (AHSCT), an experimental and controversial procedure that uses the patient's own stem cells to try to halt the progress of the disease. The FDA has not approved this procedure and last year issued a warning about unapproved stem cell therapies.

Despite the lack of established science, Snell weighed her options and decided she would undergo the procedure at Clinica Ruiz, a private clinic in Puebla, Mexico, which boasts of the largest volume of cases in the world using the procedure to treat MS. In April 2018, she went to Mexico for treatment, returned home in a month, and continues to do well.

But a positive outcome is far from assured, says Sheldon Krimsky, adjunct professor in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at the Tufts School of Medicine.

"Often you can't get a good sense of what the quality of treatment is in another country," Krimsky says, adding that many companies promise procedures whose results have not been clinically validated. "Unfortunately, people are very easily persuaded by hope."

Traveling for Medical Care

Snell is one of many Americans who have traveled abroad to access medical care. Patients Beyond Borders, a medical tourism consultancy, estimates that 2.2 million Americans will do so in 2020. A 2018 BCC report projected a five-year compounded annual industry growth rate of 13.2 percent. Adding to the demand is the aging population, which is expected to reach 95 million people by 2060 – nearly double the number in 2018.

While Snell traveled to Mexico to try a procedure that was not yet available in the United States, other patients do so for a variety of reasons, primarily cost and speed of access. For example, despite having "pretty good insurance coverage," Washington resident Soniya Gadgil needed dental procedures that would have cost thousands of dollars out-of-pocket. An India native, she decided to travel to Pune, India to visit her parents -- and while there, she got the two root canals and implant that she needed. Gadgil saved 60 percent on the final bill.

Leaving the country for medical care is not restricted to dental work or FDA-banned procedures either. Patients visit countries around the world — South America, Central America, and the Caribbean top the list — for a number of other problems, such as knee and hip replacements and bariatric operations. The most common procedures sought abroad are for dentistry, cosmetic surgery, and cardiac conditions.

Traveling abroad to access less expensive procedures is a damning indictment of healthcare delivery in the United States, says Dr. Leigh Turner, associate professor at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota. "We have people who are being forced out of the system because of high costs. Collectively it suggests a real structural problem in terms of the organization of healthcare in the United States," Turner says.

The Growth of the Online Marketplace

Nevertheless, medical tourism is booming and a number of online businesses now meet patients' demand for discovery and facilitation of medical care abroad, like PlanMyMedicalTrip.com, Doctoorum.com, and Wellness Travels.

Anurav Rane, CEO and Founder of PlanMyMedicalTrip.com, says the company presents each potential client with options, a la Expedia. A knee replacement in India costs $2,500, a significantly cheaper option even with a $1,110 round-trip airfare from the United States, Rane says. The average cost for an inpatient total knee replacement in the United States in 2019 was a little more $30,000.

Once the client chooses a specific procedure at a specific hospital, the company facilitates the necessary groundwork including the medical visa, tickets, hotel stay, booking the procedure and pre and post-op stay, and consults with the surgeons or doctors even before arrival. "The hassle of planning is on us," Rane says. Once patients are settled in the accommodations, they undergo the procedure.

Playing in the Legal Shadows

The online marketplace companies and the medical team execute an orchestrated dance – but what happens if the patient is harmed during or after the procedure?

Turner says that medical malpractice, if it occurs, can be difficult to pursue abroad. "There are countries where the courts are notoriously slow and it's very difficult to get any kind of meaningful action and settlements," he says, even if the claims have a legitimate basis.

The industry's biggest challenge is trust.

Snell signed a waiver absolving her surgeons in Mexico of any legal claims. But, she points out, that's standard process even for procedures in the United States. "I signed just as many waivers as I would going into any surgery [in the US]."

While that might well be true, Turner argues, Americans don't waive legal rights when they sign consent forms. "There are some protections for patients here in the United States."

Beyond U.S. Medical Tourism

As expected, it's not just Americans who travel abroad for medical care. Lithuania-based Wellness Travels sees a significant percentage of its clients from the EU. PlanMyMedicaltrip.com has 15,000 surgeons and doctors from 12 countries in its database. Egypt-based Doctoorum works with professionals in its own country and attracts clients from the Middle East. It is looking to expand to include doctors from Jordan and India, among other countries.

The term "tourism" is misleading here because it muddies the picture about what post-op should really look like, says Gediminas Kondrackis of Wellness Travels. "Unfortunately a lot of medical travel facilitators mislead their clients by advertising beach holiday packages and the like. Post-op is really about quiet recovery inside for a few days; being out in the sun is not advisable."

The industry's biggest challenge is trust. "The dentist I went to is actually a friend of mine who has a successful practice for several years," says Gadgil, the Washington resident who had dental work done in India. "I'd hesitate to go to someone I don't know or to a place I have no experience with." Her apprehensions are not unusual. After all, anxiety is an expected reaction to any surgery. Word-of-mouth, cost savings, and thorough research may alleviate some of these trust issues.

"I had natural apprehensions and would have had them had I gone up the road to Brigham and Women's (in Boston) just as I did over the border," Snell says, "but I had done my homework extensively. That took a lot of the fear out of it."

Medical tourism will only increase, predicts Kondrackis. "There is still a lot of room to grow. Higher numbers of medical travelers could help reduce the strain on local healthcare systems by reducing wait times and controlling costs."

While patients who have benefited from medical tourism swear by it, the best cure would be to start at home by establishing healthcare equity, Krimsky says.

On the flip side, says Turner, it is debatable whether medical tourism actually benefits host countries, where local residents might get priced out of procedures at these exclusive clinics. Even if laws in host countries such as India might mandate "charity care" for poorer local patients, that does not always happen, Turner says. The trickle-down theory that these more expensive clinics will broaden access to care is often a pipe dream, he adds.

While patients who have benefited from medical tourism swear by it, the best cure would be to start at home by establishing healthcare equity, Krimsky says. "Now if we had universal healthcare in the United States," he adds, "that would be an entirely different story."

Or maybe not. Rane, of PlanMyMedicalTrip.com, has observed an influx of patients to India from Canada, a country with universal healthcare.

The reason they say they travel for care? Long wait times for procedures.

Poornima Apte
Poornima Apte is an engineer turned award-winning freelance writer with clips in publications such as OZY, The Week, TechCrunch, JSTOR Daily and more.
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