Medical Tourism - Getting Medical Care in Another Country
Receiving medical care abroad can be risky. Learn about those risks and how to minimize them.
Going Abroad for Medical Care
"Medical tourism" refers to traveling to another country for medical care. It's estimated that up to 750,000 US residents travel abroad for care each year. Many people who travel for care do so because treatment is much cheaper in another country. In addition, a large number of medical tourists are immigrants to the United States returning to their home country for care. The most common procedures that people undergo on medical tourism trips include cosmetic surgery, dentistry, and heart surgery.
Risks of Medical Tourism
The specific risks of medical tourism depend on the area being visited and the procedures performed, but some general issues have been identified:
- Communication may be a problem. Receiving care at a facility where you do not speak the language fluently increases the chance that misunderstandings will arise about the care.
- Doctors may reuse needles between patients or have other unsafe injection practices, which can transmit diseases such as hepatitis and HIV.
- Medication may be counterfeit or of poor quality in some countries.
- Antibiotic resistance is a global problem, and resistant bacteria may be more common in other countries than in the United States.
- The blood supply in some countries comes primarily from paid donors and may not be screened, which puts patients at risk of HIV and other infections spread through blood.
- Flying after surgery increases the risk for blood clots.
What You Can Do
- If you are planning to travel to another country for medical care, see a travel medicine practitioner at least 4–6 weeks before the trip to discuss general information for healthy travel and specific risks related to the procedure and travel before and after the procedure.
- Check for the qualifications of the health care providers who will be doing the procedure and the credentials of the facility where the procedure will be done. The Joint Commission International (US-based) certifies health care facilities according to specific standards.
- Make sure that you have a written agreement with the health care facility or the group arranging the trip, defining what treatments, supplies, and care are covered by the costs of the trip.
- Determine what legal actions you can take if anything goes wrong with the procedure.
- If you go to a country where you do not speak the language, determine ahead of time how you will communicate with your doctor and other people who are caring for you.
- Obtain copies of your medical records that includes the lab and other studies done related to the condition for which you are obtaining the care and any allergies you may have.
- Prepare copies of all your prescriptions and a list of all the medicines you take, including their brand names, their generic names, manufacturers, and dosages.
- Arrange for follow-up care with your local health care provider before you leave.
- Before planning "vacation" activities, such as sunbathing, drinking alcohol, swimming, or taking long tours, find out if those activities are permitted after surgery.
- Get copies of all your medical records before you return home.
Guidance from Professional Organizations
- American Medical Association Guidelines on Medical Tourism [PDF - 20KB]
- Organization for Safety, Asepsis, & Prevention's Travelers Guide to Safe Dental Care
- The International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery Guidelines for Travelers
- Cosmetic Surgery Tourism Briefing Paper
- CDC Yellow Book 2014 information on Medical Tourism