Imagine you’re one of the 48 million Americans without healthcare coverage—and require bypass surgery to treat your heart disease. According to a 2011 OECD report, the procedure costs near $100,000 in most US hospitals.  But, if you’re willing to travel east to Thailand, you can receive the same operation for as little as $15,000 USD.
Since the mid-twentieth century, health care costs have exploded in many developed countries—especially in the United States. For those without health insurance, or with high deductibles, traveling across borders with the intention of receiving treatment represents a tempting alternative.
From dental work to cosmetic surgery, medical tourism drives millions of people to travel abroad for treatments each year. Many are drawn by the promise of high-value clinical outcomes and high-quality care—at one-tenth of the cost:
|Lasik (2 eyes)||$4,000||$1,000||$2,310||$3,800|
The above list represents approximate averages and may vary depending on the hospital and procedure.
The sheer volume of medical tourists seeking treatment makes them a growing source of revenue for developing nations, spurring some countries to actually compete for a patient’s business.  These include India, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Turkey.
Since the quality of care and costs vary widely, we’ll focus on comparing two top JCI-accredited international hospitals to help you decide if combining a healthcare treatment with your next vacation trip might be worth the savings.
About Joint Commission International (JCI) Accreditation
Because trusted international accreditation has become one of the most important factors for medical tourists who are screening facilities abroad, the US-based Joint Commission launched its international affiliate agency in 1999: the Joint Commission International (JCI).
To be accredited by the JCI, an international hospital must meet the same set of rigorous standards set forth in the US by the Joint Commission—which also awards accreditation to well-known facilities such as the Mayo Clinic.
Medical Tourism in Thailand: Bangkok’s Bumrungrad Hospital
Walk into Bangkok’s Bumrungrad International Hospital, and the first thing that you’ll notice is that it looks nothing like a traditional medical facility. Instead, Bumrungrad is designed to look like a 5-star hotel, its lobby filled with boutiques and restaurants offering international cuisine.
Image via Wikipedia
Approach the welcome desk, and you’ll be greeted in English—the hospital also staffs over 150 interpreters readily available to translate 25 languages, including Chinese, Arabic, Spanish, and German. Additional conveniences include an international airport concierge service, international insurance coordination, and a visa extension service.
What Kinds of Treatment Can Medical Tourists Find at Bumrungrad?
Bumrungrad has over 36 different medical centers and programs ranging from ear, nose, and throat specialists and fertility treatments to evaluating sleep quality.
Even with all these services, Bumrungrad is best known for its tertiary care—meaning the kind that would usually require two referrals. Doctors are trained in complex procedures or treatments and use specialized equipment. This is especially so in the following medical centers, which can be remembered by the acronym CONGO:
- Cardiology (Heart)
- Oncology (Cancer)
- Neurology /Neonatal
- GI (digestive disease)
Looking for a specialist? Bumrungrad’s website offers would-be patients the chance to peruse medical staff by specialty.
Is Bumrungrad Up to Western Standards of Quality and Care?
The privately-owned hospital was the first in Asia to receive accreditation by the US-based Joint Commission International (JCI). However, Bumrungrad International Hospital doesn’t just meet western standards—in many ways, it surpasses them:
Almost all testing is completed in-house, including blood samples, biopsies, and MRI scans. A pneumatic tube transport network transfers specimens from the different clinics and centers on all floors of the hospital to the centralized lab for testing, which means that results are often sent back within an hour.
Bumrungrad also uses a cognitive computer technology known as “Watson for Oncology.” It’s a massive database used by oncologists that takes into account a cancer patient’s symptoms and combines that with information from medical literature and the knowledge and experience from medical experts before providing a specialized treatment. This is the first of its kind and a huge leap forward for cancer patient care.
Inpatients’ meds are ordered by a doctor but then the task of dispensing and packaging them in single-use doses are done so by a fully automated drug management system dubbed “Pharmacy Robot.” This robot also triple-checks drug interactions and dosages before popping everything into little plastic baggies to be later picked up by a nurse and administered to patients.
How Much Do Medical Procedures Cost at Bumrungrad?
Unlike hospitals in the United States, Bumrungrad is upfront about costs on their website, listing the approximate cost for dozens of procedures in US dollars—you can search pricing by procedure here. Note that these prices include food, a private room, and private nurse.
Bumrungrad also offers discounted pricing on packages for everything from comprehensive health check-ups by gender ($659 USD for women over 40 years old) to a total hip replacement with a MAKO Robotic Arm (approximately $18,564 USD).
What about follow up visits? To reduce the expense of an additional journey, Bumrungrad also has a unique relationship with Thai Airways that allows patients to pay for their return check up with frequent flier miles.
Medical Tourism in India: Apollo International Hospitals
If asked to picture India, you might imagine congested streets, colorful markets, and the sweeping curves of some of the country’s most famous buildings. Apollo International Hospital group is trying to change that image to one of sparkling clean private hospitals and advanced medical care.
The private hospital industry is rapidly growing in India, fueled by an expanding middle class who are demanding access to first-world medical care. This growth, combined with access to high-tech equipment, is attracting Indian-born doctors to return home after practicing in the United States or England—meaning that the same standards of care you expect from your local hospital can be found at one-tenth of the cost.
Apollo International Hospitals haven’t been able to attract the same number of medical tourists as Bumrungrad, largely due to a lack of incoming flights: Bangkok’s International Airport (BKK) sees close to 300 a day, while many international airports in India cap out at under 100.
However, that hasn’t stopped Apollo from trying to carve out a bigger piece of the medical tourism pie. Patients are assured of high-quality care due to Apollo’s JCI accreditation, and are offered the services of online consultations and an international patient office to help plan your trip.
What else sets Apollo apart? In addition to treatment costs that are even lower than those offered at Bumrungrad, patients are given access to massages and yoga classes during their inpatient stay. For prolonged postoperative recuperation, Apollo suggests one of several beachside all-inclusive resorts where two people can stay in a private cottage for $150 a night.
What Kinds of Treatment and Costs Can Medical Tourists Expect at Apollo?
Indulgent extras might not be enough to convince medical tourists to travel to India—but, the availability of hip resurfacing treatments could be the ticket.
Hip resurfacing is a less intrusive option than a total hip replacement, offering faster recovery times, since the procedure doesn’t call for cutting through the bone. Despite getting patients up and moving quicker, hip resurfacing has yet to be approved by the FDA. In fact, the only way to get one in the United States is by taking part in an expensive clinical trial—costing approximately $28,000–$32,000 USD.
How much is a hip resurfacing in India? According to the below 60 Minutes clip, the procedure is available for only $5,800 USD:
Other available orthopedic surgeries include ceramic-coated knee replacements and Ilizarov Limb Lengthening, which was pioneered by one of Apollo’s doctors. Aside from orthopedics, Apollo hospitals offer 12 specialty centers, ranging from oncology (cancer) treatments to neurosurgery.
Again, like Bumrungrad, many of Apollo International Hospital’s doctors practiced in the United States. However, they’re able to charge a fraction of stateside prices because labor and malpractice insurance are less expensive.
What are the Risks of Medical Tourism?
Before you pack your bags, know that there are potential drawbacks to traveling internationally for a medical procedure.
Depending on where you’re located, the chances are that traveling to Thailand or India means a fairly long flight. While consumers can shave dollars off the cost by finding deals on airfare, there’s no way short of a private jet to shorten the trip—which can mean varying degrees of discomfort depending on your physical health.
There are also risks to your health to consider, due to less-strict sanitation rules. While the two hospitals we’ve looked at have received the highest international accreditation, international patients are still exposed to different bacteria, increasing your risk of gastrointestinal disorders.
Depending on the type of procedure you’re looking for, there’s also an impact on the local population to consider. Organ transplants are still available at some international locations—allowing those in need to bypass lengthy waitlists in their home countries. However, most countries have banned transplant tourism, due to the difficulty of protecting vulnerable locals who can be pressured, or forced, into donating.
Finally, if something were to go wrong with your surgery, you could be left suing for malpractice in a foreign court—a time-consuming process that’s unlikely to resolve in your favor.
Before You Go, Research What Medical Tourists Say About Their Experiences
While those cautions sound severe and frightening, it’s important to remember that many medical tourists have had positive experiences traveling abroad for medical care—and more are taking the journey each year.
How to research destinations for your next medical procedure? Reading about others’ experiences is a great place to start. Reddit is a particularly useful place to search for medical tourism advice, either by destination or procedure, including Lasik, surgery to correct bulging discs, lap band surgery for weight loss, and dental work to name a few.
Bottom line: Medical tourism isn’t a great option for smaller treatments or urgent care. But, for those who have the opportunity to plan for surgeries and the need to save, looking to outsource their healthcare presents a viable opportunity.
- Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development: Health at a Glance 2011
- Patients Beyond Borders: Medical Tourism Statistics & Facts