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Should You Travel for Healthcare?

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Medical Tourism Isn't for Everyone

Medical tourism is not a vacation, though, and it isn't for everyone. "When you have surgery, you're at a very weak point in life," says Anmol S. Mahal, MD, immediate past president of the California Medical Association. "While you may be able to find cheaper care abroad, I believe the best place for a patient to get treatment is close to home, with a doctor he or she trusts."

The mileage involved means that traveling for healthcare is best for "routine procedures, such as orthopedic surgery or a one-time cancer treatment -- things that have major cost savings and high success rates," says Patrick Marsek, of the Chicago-based medical-travel agency MedRetreat. Would-be patients need to be fit enough to withstand very long flights both before and after treatment, says Marsek, so "it may not be safe to send someone abroad for a quadruple bypass."

Making sure the right aftercare is available, especially if problems arise, is also crucial, says Taizoon Baxamusa, MD, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Not every doctor is willing to treat complications from surgery done elsewhere, because "repair work is more complicated, less predictable, and has a greater chance of a negative outcome than the initial procedure," Dr. Baxamusa explains. Also, treatment for complications can be expensive, which is a problem if you're uninsured.

One of the biggest drawbacks to care abroad is that there's little you can do if something goes really wrong. Malpractice suits are generally hard to file and even harder to win in other countries. Awards, if any, are usually much lower than they are in the U.S. A few companies, such as Companion Global Healthcare, are starting to put together insurance policies that patients can buy to provide malpractice coverage for care performed outside the U.S., but "right now, your rights as a patient just aren't clear," says Renee-Marie Stephano, JD, general counsel and COO for the Medical Tourism Association (MTA), an international nonprofit organization that is providing some standardization on medical travel. "Even in America, malpractice laws vary state by state. Bring in foreign doctors and procedures done in different countries and it becomes impossibly complicated. Where should a suit be filed? Who is liable when a medical-travel agency is used? There just isn't any case law on these issues."

Organizations are working to make the process safer. The MTA is creating guidelines on how medical-travel agencies should operate. (Currently, these groups are not accredited. For tips on finding a reputable one, go to


By the end of the year, the MTA plans to launch a Web site where would-be patients can compare foreign hospitals and surgeons by procedures, safety records and success rates (

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