A Cut Below: Americans Look Abroad for Health Care

When Sparrow Mahoney was hit by a drunk driver while vacationing in Croatia two years ago, she never imagined the accident would lead her to something that could revolutionize the American health care industry.

Lying in an intensive care unit more than 4,000 miles away from her New York City apartment, the uninsured 27-year-old entrepreneur trembled with the thought of having to pay her foreign medical bills.

Her left leg was fractured in more than a dozen places, and Mahoney was told an amputation was very likely. She was forced to weigh the merits of losing her leg against a potentially huge medical bill.

"Would you rather tell them to go ahead and cut if off if it's only going to cost me $10,000, or should I bankrupt myself and my family trying to save my leg?" she said.

Mahoney went ahead with the reconstruction. Three weeks later, she got the bill. What could have easily been a six-figure procedure came in for just under $5,000.

She marked the one-year anniversary of the accident by climbing a flight of stairs, and today Mahoney is an avid runner.

"More important, I wasn't bankrupt, and I was able to follow a dream," she said.

The experience fueled a desire to help more Americans get access to affordable health care that Mahoney found by accident -- a very painful accident.

"America did a pretty good job of marketing itself as the place for the best health care for a long time," Mahoney said. "That's largely to do with medical schools and facilities, but it has nothing to do with access."

Many Americans in Need of Coverage

More than 45 million Americans lack health insurance, and that number continues to grow. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, between the years 2000 and 2004 the number of uninsured Americans increased by 6 million.

Mahoney believes that by looking at options outside the American health care system those who lack adequate insurance can get medical care at significantly lower prices. Often referred to as medical tourism, seeking medical care outside the United States is an idea that is taking off at new levels.

More and more Americans are looking across the border and overseas to get their medicine. Jeff Schult, author of "Beauty from Afar," a guide to medical tourism, estimates that more than 100,000 Americans a year travel beyond the boarder for cosmetic procedures alone.

In 2005, for example, Bumrungrad Hospital in Thailand served more than 50,000 American patients, a 30 percent increase from the previous year. Thailand is just one of the countries where foreign patients have flocked. India, Brazil, Costa Rica and Mexico all market themselves as medical destinations, according to Schult.

Traveling abroad for medical procedures isn't new. For years, people have voyaged to exotic locals for aesthetic procedures -- a little nip and tuck between some rest and relaxation. But now the number of Americans leaving the country for medically necessary procedures has taken off too.

"The medical tourism model has really been turned around as the health care crisis looms larger and larger," said Dr. Matt Fontana, the chief medical officer for GlobalChoice Healthcare, a medical tourism booking company in Albuquerque, N.M. "People are saying, 'I'll pick the procedure and then I'll pick the destination.'"

As patients and businesses realize they can save up to 80 percent on pricey medical procedures, the medical travel industry is booming.

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