The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a charming 2012 movie that features a diverse and eccentric group of older Brits living in a “retirement hotel” in India. One of the characters, played by Maggie Smith, initially goes to India for a hip replacement. Traveling for medical treatment, a concept known as medical tourism, may seem a little crazy. But last year alone, nearly 8 million people, including more than a million Americans, crossed national borders for that very reason. So what makes medical tourism appealing to so many people? Let’s take a look.
Advantage of Medical Tourism #1: Save Time and Money
As Maggie Smith’s doctor in the movie explains, the first advantage of medical tourism is that her surgery could be done immediately in India rather than the usual months-long delay in England and at a fraction of the cost. Traveling for medical treatment allows for people in countries with overtaxed public healthcare systems and long waits to jump to the front of the line so to speak. It certainly makes sense. And even when transportation and lodging are added in, the savings can be substantial.
Not surprisingly, procedures that require out-of-pocket payment, such as cosmetic surgery, dental work, and fertility treatments, are popular among medical tourists. For example, you could get a facelift in Latin America for about half of what you’d pay here. But in an effort to deflate rising costs, more and more insurance providers, employers, and governments are referring patients abroad for a variety of covered services. According to Josef Woodman, author of Patients Beyond Borders, a knee replacement in Thailand costs a third of what it does in the US, and savings on heart valve surgeries in India are even greater.
Advantage of Medical Tourism #2: Get the Treatments You Want/Need
Another reason people seek out medical tourism is treatment availability. Most North Americans are fortunate to have access to medical care. Everybody needs a local doctor, and a nearby hospital can be lifesaving in the event of a traumatic injury or stroke.
But what if you’re not getting better, despite receiving the best medical care in your area? What if you’re interested in a treatment or therapeutic approach that is unavailable? The FDA is notoriously slow and often unwilling to approve cutting-edge, innovative therapies, and many physicians are reluctant to recommend anything besides the usual medications and surgery.
Traveling for medical treatment makes sense if you can’t find the therapies you want or a doctor who is attuned to your needs in your area. You have no choice but to go where the action is. That’s another advantage of medical tourism: You have the option to travel anywhere you like to receive novel treatments for cancer, pain, joint degeneration, neurodegenerative disorders, and other serious diseases.
I understand that traveling for medical treatment to developing countries may be outside your comfort zone, especially if you’re an unseasoned traveler or really sick. Fortunately, medical tourism doesn’t necessarily mean leaving the country. The United States’ safety, ease of travel, and reputation for quality care makes it a prime destination. But you may have to leave your city or state.
Advantage of Medical Tourism #3: It’s Right Here in the US
When I first started hearing about medical tourism, I always linked it to international travel. But then I realized that the Whitaker Wellness Institute and our Back to Health Program is—and has been for more than 35 years—a textbook example of medical tourism.
Many of our patients drive or fly in from all over California and the rest of the US, but a large number also come from Canada and other countries. Traveling for medical treatment, even within the country, can be stressful, so we handle everything: hotel accommodations, transportation to and from the airport and clinic, all-inclusive meals, medical records, scheduling, follow-up after returning home, and any other assistance that is required.
During the time patients spend with us (usually one to three weeks) they undergo an individualized treatment program, have multiple physician visits to monitor progress, and receive personalized instruction in nutrition and lifestyle changes. As an added bonus, they can enjoy Newport Beach’s beautiful weather, beaches, and many tourist attractions—yet another advantage of medical tourism in sunny southern California.
Advantage of Medical Tourism at WWI: Access to Therapies
The main reason “medical tourists” come to Whitaker Wellness is because the therapies and treatment approaches we offer are unavailable back home. For example, we help patients replace side effect-riddled prescription drugs with safer alternatives—something most doctors won’t do. We’re among the few clinics in the country that offers adult stem cell therapy or platelet-rich plasma, which Kobe Bryant flew to Germany to get for his damaged knee a few years ago. Enhanced external counterpulsation (EECP), hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT), neurofeedback, microcurrent, high-intensity laser, infrared light, IV nutrients, acupuncture: Patients travel to Whitaker Wellness because we have more noninvasive alternatives in one place than any other clinic in the northern hemisphere.
Some come to save money. American hospitals charge more than $1,000 for a hyperbaric oxygen treatment (and only use it for a handful of conditions); we charge around $200. Adult stem cell therapy costs tens of thousands of dollars in Asia and Europe compared to $6,300 here. An EECP course runs about $200 per treatment versus $300–$400 in some hospitals and clinics.
A fair number of people come to Whitaker Wellness because we are literally their last hope: diabetics trying to avoid an amputation, heart patients looking for alternatives to bypass surgery, stroke survivors and Parkinson’s patients hoping to regain function. Bottom line, they’re sick people looking for help that is not readily available elsewhere, if at all.
Medical Tourism: Looking to the Future
You’ll be hearing more and more about this phenomenon in coming years. Ease of travel, increasingly high quality of international treatment facilities and services, competitive costs, and growing awareness have created a boom in medical tourism. On top of that, our rapidly aging population plus the demand for services created by the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) is taxing America’s healthcare resources. Longer waits and fewer choices are becoming the norm.
Soon, hopping on a plane and flying to Asia, Latin America—or California, for that matter—for treatment of serious medical conditions will be perceived as a practical necessity, not an adventurous extravagance. Will you take advantage of medical tourism in the near future?
Medical Tourism Resources
First and foremost, if you aren’t satisfied with your local healthcare, explore the idea of traveling for medical treatment. Look for international facilities recognized for safety and quality of care by US-based agencies such as jointcommissioninternational.org (which has accredited more than 500 hospitals worldwide). Good resources include Josef Woodman’s book Patients Beyond Borders and patientsbeyondborders.com. To learn more about taking advantage of medical tourism right here in the US at the Whitaker Wellness Institute, visit whitakerwellness.com or call 866-944-8253.