Medical travel, or crossing the U.S. border for medical or dental procedures, is rebounding in a big way, according to new data, as Americans seek cheaper alternatives after pandemic shutdowns.
About 650,000 Americans are expected to travel abroad for medical or dental procedures, according to booking data from Medical Departures analyzed by HealthCareInsider.com. That’s up 124% from last year’s 290,000, but still short of the 780,000 Americans who traveled in 2019.
“In dollar terms it’s actually up by 20% to 50%, depending on who you ask,” said Jacob Pope, chief operating officer of Medical Departures. “It’s people who’ve deferred larger treatments.”
While the savings can be significant for some procedures, there are still risks and other considerations Americans should make before booking an appointment in another country — especially in the changing COVID-19 landscape.
‘People are going to search out the best deals’
The industry appeals to budget-conscious Americans since quality surgical procedures can be found overseas for as much as 50% to 80% less, the analysis found. That means even for the insured, paying out of pocket abroad is sometimes still cheaper than meeting a U.S. health insurance deductible or copay for certain procedures.
“It's a global economy and people are going to search out the best deals and find them,” said HealthCare.com co-founder Jeff Smedsrud. “You're gonna see more of this over time.”
One popular hotspot is Mexico, where Americans seek out dentistry, in vitro fertilization, and orthopedic surgery. For Americans who contend with limited dental insurance coverage and high copays, undergoing a dental procedure in Mexico is particularly appealing aside from just cost. The country is relatively close and many dentists come from elite training institutions in both Mexico and the U.S, Pope noted.
Common dental work like crowns come with at least a 57% savings rate when performed south of the border, bringing the patient's average bill down from $1,164 to $500. Americans can find the biggest savings on root canals. The procedure's average rate from a U.S.-based dentist is $1,275, but is only $247 on average in Mexico.
For cosmetic procedures such as botox and fillers, hair transplants, breast augmentation, and rhinoplasty, the No. 1 medical destination is Bangkok, Thailand, according to the analysis.
Still, the math isn’t always straight forward.
“Patients should balance their U.S. costs against the total cost of overseas procedures and travel,” Smedsrud said, “and keep safety as their first priority.”
‘When things go wrong’
For those entertaining a healthcare procedure abroad, Americans should be vaccinated against COVID-19, know if medical travel insurance is required in the country, and check with their insurer to understand what is and isn’t covered.
Other risks should be weighed against the discount, including lower quality of care, language barriers, and post-op recovery accommodations in the country. Patients shouldn’t fly for at least 10 days after surgery for certain treatments.
“The cost savings can be real, the quality can be better, but when things go wrong, it's outside of the U.S. legal service structure,” Smedsrud continued, mentioning that it’s “harder” to claim malpractice abroad and collect on it from the U.S.
Whether Americans want to travel abroad for health care also hinges on COVID-19’s volatile global case count and international rulings on tourists visas and vaccination status.
“If vaccinations continue to increase and case counts go down,” Pope anticipates continued growth, “but if a new variant spreads and vaccines aren’t effective, then all bets are off.”