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Should You Travel for Healthcare?

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For a fraction of the cost of knee, hip, or other surgery in the U.S., you can go to Thailand or Costa Rica and get the same procedure -- hotel, airfare, even spa treatments included. But are medical procedures overseas worth the cheaper price tag? FITNESS investigates.

Is It Worth the Risk?

One misstep last summer was all it took for Debi Thorkelson to wrench her knee so badly she couldn't even bend her leg. After an MRI showed that she'd torn a major ligament, the doctor said she needed surgery. "I had no insurance, and the operation was more than $41,000, not including the hospital stay," says Thorkelson, 45, of Naples, Florida. "I just didn't have the money."

Then her husband remembered a show he'd seen about Americans getting medical treatment in Panama, at rock-bottom prices. He found a travel agency that matched patients with physicians abroad. The agency recommended a U.S.-trained doctor working at the Clinica Biblica Hospital in San Jose, Costa Rica. The total cost? Just under $4,000 for surgery, plane tickets, and nine days in a brand-new rehab center.

Thorkelson is one of half a million Americans who traveled overseas last year to countries like Brazil, Costa Rica, Singapore, Thailand, and India for treatments including hip and knee replacement, heart and gynecological surgery, even cancer and experimental procedures such as stem-cell therapy, according to Josef Woodman, author of Patients Beyond Borders, the first comprehensive guide to medical travel. Many experts believe that outsourcing healthcare is the wave of the future; others are convinced the risks involved -- long-distance travel, unknown doctors, little recourse if things go wrong -- make it a poor, and sometimes dangerous, alternative. "Medical tourism is extremely safe as long as patients do their homework and know what they're getting into before they go," says Woodman.

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