NPR logo Few U.S. Medical Tourists Go Overseas For Care


Few U.S. Medical Tourists Go Overseas For Care

Remember all those stories about Americans in search of cheap health care heading south of the border, or to the Far East, as medical tourists?

Few Americans are heading south of the border to Mexico and other countries for health care. hide caption

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Turns out there may not be as many as the hype led us to believe. That, at least, is the conclusion researchers at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine came to with a survey published online last month in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

The researchers found 63 U.S.-based companies in existence that coordinate international health care trips and got 45 of them to complete a survey in 2008. The ones that responded weren't especially big: the average number of employees was just under 10.

Moreover, those companies weren't exactly sending people overseas in droves: the number of patients referred to overseas medical facilities averaged 285.

For patients, the most common destinations were India, Costa Rica, and Thailand. And they seemed most likely to travel internationally for orthopedics, cardiac care, and cosmetic surgery than other treatments.

But interestingly, the researchers found that the costs reported by the medical tourism companies for many common procedures were often not all that much less than what Medicare pays. Coronary bypass surgery, for example, costs on average about $20,000 overseas (including various doctor and hospital fees and travel expenses), while the average Medicare reimbursement is $21,000.

Still, $20,000 overseas could potentially be a steal for someone without insurance.

Though the main pull for overseas care seems to be a perception of lower costs, some patients go for "miracle" treatments that have not been approved for use in the U.S. The most common unapproved treatment among medical tourists, according to the survey, is stem cell therapy.

So what does all this mean for the medical tourism industry? Well, it seems few Americans are actually bold enough to leave the United States for treatment. But "overseas medical care can be a reasonable alternative for price sensitive patients in need of relatively common, elective medical procedures," the study noted.

And don't forget that the trend goes the other way too. As NPR reported in 2009 on Morning Edition, Miami continues to be a destination for patients from the Caribbean and Latin America.