Amid Health Crisis, More Americans Going Abroad for Care

Editor's Note: Also see Medical Tourism Is Great -- for Those Who Can Afford It.

According to the National Coalition of Health Care in America, in 2007, total national health expenditures were expected to rise 6.9 percent--twice the rate of inflation. health care spending is 4.3 times the amount spent on national defense. And although 47 million Americans are uninsured, the United States spends more on health care than other industrialized nations.

It is no wonder then that scores of American citizens are heading off to foreign shores for their health care needs.

New Yorker Danelle New, 29, was suffering from epilepsy, the residual effect of a car accident during high school. She suffered grand mal seizures lasting up to 20 minutes, which she says western doctors could not explain or understand. "My body would build up resistances to the pharmaceutical drugs and they would no longer work, which forced me to try and find other ways to solve the problem."

New traveled to India in 2004, and has been seizure-free since. "It was a significant cost savings, as I had already spent thousands of dollars in medical expenses, not to mention the tens of thousands of dollars spent by my insurance company," she says. This included a five-day hospital stay and medications that cost more than $700 a month.

In India, she spent $1,200 for successful therapy with "less than two months of prescription medication," she adds.

India is, indeed, one of the biggest markets for medical tourism, where tourism companies now offer attractive packages that include treatment with a splendid view of the ocean.

"For many procedures, the cost is 50-90 percent lower in India versus the US," says Herb Stephens, Co-Founder and CEO of Health Travel Guides. For instance, he says, open heart surgery costs between $55,000 to $100,000 in the US. In India, you would get it for $8,500. Hip replacement is $65,000 in the US, around $8,000 in India.

Mexico, too, is a popular destination, especially for Americans. The prices are comparable to those in India, but the flights are direct and cheaper.

The benefit, says Stephens, of working with a company such as his is that they take care of all the travel and medical details - no worrying about how to get to the hospital, which flights to book, and where to check in.

There are problems, however.

The British Medical Association advises people to be careful when considering treatment abroad, and says flying soon after surgery can cause complications. Some experts also question the health care available in countries such as India and Mexico.

"Some countries have image issues that extend erroneously to assumptions about health care," says Stephens. "For example, India is a country with a very large population that includes a very large and visible segment of poor people. Many Americans see media examples of this poverty and erroneously assume that good health care must not be available. It's a definite issue that international health care providers have to work to overcome."

In his experience, he says, the prejudice is quickly and decisively dispelled for medical travelers who venture abroad. Most are shocked by the quality and modernity of the facilities, doctor training, hospital staff and equipment. "This is true not only of Indian hospitals like Apollo Group, but also hospitals in Mexico such as Grupo Angeles in Tijuana, ABC Hospital in Mexico City and Amerimed in Puerto Vallarta.

New admits to being pleasantly surprised during her trip to India. "I was surprised by how therapeutic the entire process was. I believe I had mentally prepared myself for something much more strange and maybe even more invasive than what I actually experienced."

New sought natural treatments in India, but for most travelers, western medicine is still the big pull.

And the numbers are continuously increasing. Over 150,000 medical tourists traveled to India in 2002. The rate of increase has been 15 percent since then and reports indicate that India's medical tourism earnings alone will increase to $2 billion by 2012.

The Government of India is making sure the country is ready by investing $6.5 billion in medical tourism infrastructure. In Mexico, StarMedica hospital groups built seven hospitals in the last five years, AmeriMed is opening ten new hospitals by 2012, and Grupo, the largest private hospital group in Mexico, is spending $700 million to build 15 hospitals in the next three years.

What does this mean for the United States? Plenty. It means that with rising international competition, American hospitals are likely to adopt aggressive marketing strategies, and maybe even create policy shifts allowing for better health care within the country.

In the meantime, patients seem happy with a variety of options available to them--at home or abroad.

"I would have spent multiple more thousands out of pocket to actually cure or even just more successfully treat my condition," says New. Instead, she spent three months in India, "for a successful therapy that truly changed my body, my mind, and my approach to life."

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