Risks and rewards of foreign surgeries

Ben Ortega, Editor

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One of many American citizens to travel overseas to get cheaper surgeries. (Photo via abcnews.com)

Medical tourism, a relatively new trend that has had a massive effect on the medical community and the lives of patients, is becoming ever more popular. Each year for the past decade, about 15 million Americans have sought out cheaper surgical treatments by looking to foreign countries for what they expect will be inexpensive, safe surgical procedures, but that is not always the case. 

Depending on the type of treatment needed, travelling abroad has both positive and negative outcomes. More often than not, patients that fly to other countries to receive inexpensive surgeries tend to end up with infections, poorly done operations, further injuries, and, in some extreme cases, even dead. At times though, people are able to get their operations done for a much lower price than available in the US without suffering negative consequences.

Exuberant medical costs in the U.S. push people, especially those with inadequate healthcare or none at all, to seek these alternatives. Surgeries that cost $50,000 in the U.S. could cost as little as $14,000, with medications and flights included, in countries with regulated medical fees like Belgium. Many European hospitals offer their services at a fraction of the American cost while still providing top notch care.

“The idea is to make it easier for patients from overseas — whether from North America, Russia or the Middle East — to see Europe as a solution because of its high quality and reasonable prices,” said Balazs Stumpf-Biro, the executive director of the European Medical Travel Alliance, an industry group that regulates and entices medical travel. 

Yet, the new flood of American, Middle Eastern, and Russian patients to Western European countries is relatively new thanks to the recently implemented medical cost regulations in various countries. The original, and still primary, destinations for cheaper medical services include poorer countries like Mexico, India, Costa Rica, Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brazil.

“In the past few years, Americans are definitely more willing to go overseas and now appreciate that there is quality there, whereas seven years ago they didn’t have that perception,” said Jonathan Edelheit, the chief executive of the Medical Tourism Association

In these countries, health and medical laws to ensure the safety and wellbeing of patients are limited, which is one of the factors of the extremely low prices. The bulk of foreign surgeries consist of plastic and cosmetic surgeries that are usually very expensive in the U.S. It seems like a good idea to choose the economically cheaper alternative, but unfortunately many patients end up with botched jobs. 

It is not uncommon for recipients of the risky surgeries to develop infections like E. Coli, have stitches rip open, get serious blood clots, and other post surgical complications that cause long term damage and life threatening situations. These complications might end up costing patients more money than what the surgery in the U.S. would cost.

More and more countries are attempting to entice foreigners to get treatment abroad as it is a huge economic booster. Many of these countries are developed countries like Ireland, Northern Ireland, South Korea, and Singapore who are attempting to boost and diversify their economies. These countries tend to be safer, but at the same time more costly alternatives, due to their superb patient protection, health laws, and highly advanced medical technologies.

“When companies make a large purchase of machines, they ask for a few bids, but that doesn’t normally happen in medicine,” Mr. Weber said, the chief executive for MediBid, a group that is revolutionizing the economic side of medicine by increasing competition and price transparency. “When providers have to compete with transparency, the rates come in lower.”

When thinking about traveling to foreign countries, the risks need to be taken into consideration, not only the economic benefits. It is usually better to stay alive than get a bargain on a liposuction, a face lift, or an implant.