A Cut Below: Americans Look Abroad for Health Care

Paying a Fraction of the Cost

Tom Hiland, a 57-year-old commercial real estate developer in Denver chose to travel to India for surgery to correct a heart murmur he'd had since birth. Having lost his insurance in 2003, the out-of-pocket cost for the procedure in the United States could have set him back as much as $150,000.

Hiland paid only one-tenth of that. The mitral valve replacement, which used the latest technology and was performed by an American-trained surgeon, and a 23-night hospital stay cost him only $15,000.

But is it safe? Many factors -- the lack of a uniform regulatory body, varying malpractice laws and the idea of undergoing invasive medical procedures in a developing part of the world -- cause people to question whether the savings are worth it.

"As a generalization, I would say that the medical facilities in the major international cities of the world are comparable to those across all countries, including in the U.S.," Schult said.

Schult, a medical tourist himself, added that the Internet and access to global telecommunications provide important safeguards for medical tourism. There are a number of Web forums dedicated to discussing surgery abroad. Schult said he visited one, plasticsurgeryjourneys.com, before traveling to Costa Rica for a procedure.

"If somebody is no good they aren't going to last," he said. "The word gets out very quickly on the Internet. If a doctor has a complication or two it spreads around the forums. He might as well not even practice anymore."

Some Doctors Disagree

Even with more information available, there are risks. Scott Spear, a Washington plastic surgeon, said Internet testimonials don't compare to independent regulation.

"It's a 'buyer beware' situation when you leave your home shores to go for health care as an individual," Spear said. "It's obviously much riskier than if you went to a place down the street where they have a piece of paper on the wall that says they've been certified by the state and other organizations."

The growing phenomenon has caught the eye of Congress. In June the Senate held a hearing on the globalization of health care to determine what is at the root of the growing trend.

"The ease of international travel and the growth in quality care facilities in developing countries certainly plays a part. But I believe frustration with rising health care costs in the U.S. is a key contributing factor," Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., said at the hearing.

Smith isn't alone in that belief. After returning from Croatia, Sparrow Mahoney said she saw how the skyrocketing cost of health care in this country prevents access to the American medical system.

Today Mahoney runs the Web site www.medicaltourism.com out of her office outside Washington D.C. She describes it as a "Lending Tree" for health care -- a place where patients can tap into and compare health care options from around the world.

"This isn't just getting a better nose job and going to the beach afterward," Mahoney said. "This is really opening doors to Americans that have been shut for a long time."

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