Medical Tourism on The Grow


A few weeks back, Reason.tv discussed Canadians coming to the U.S. for operations that would take forever to get in the Great White North.

Reason contributing editor and San Francisco Chronicle journo Carolyn Lochhead has a fascinating piece on American medical tourists who go elsewhere for much cheaper and equally good care:

Deloitte Consulting estimated that 560,000 U.S. residents went abroad for care last year. The firm thinks that number will rise to 1.6 million by 2012, with patients getting discounts of up to 90 percent on procedures from liver transplants to hip resurfacing.

Uninsured patients…make up the bulk of those now venturing abroad. But big insurers have started pilot projects, and a reinsurer for businesses, Swiss Re, is now offering overseas coverage. A Northern California casino and a Maine supermarket chain now offer the option to employees….

Here's a story that lays clear the benefits:

Former Mill Valley resident John Freeman, 61, now living in Reno, needed a coronary bypass. He had dropped his catastrophic insurance coverage because the $320 monthly premium was eroding his retirement savings and the $5,000 deductible left him with big bills.

Facing a $100,000-plus operation, he thought he had two choices: "submit or die."

A friend pointed him to a third: World Med Assist of Concord, which lined him up with a heart surgeon in Turkey. The all-inclusive cost: $18,000. He had the surgery last spring and "unreservedly" recommends the care.

U.S. doctors refused to give him a price. "They would almost be proud of it," Freeman said. "They would say, 'That's not my department, I do operations. I don't have any idea how much anything costs.' Even the nurse would get mad at me and say, 'You want me to connect you with the billing department?'"

Lochhead includes this list of comparable prices:

Heart bypass: $8,500 in India; in the U.S., $144,000

Liver transplant: $75,000 in Latin America; in the U.S., up to $315,000

Dental implant: $1,000 in Costa Rica; in the U.S., $2,000-$10,000

Face-lift: $4,000 in Singapore; in the U.S., $15,000

Knee replacement: $10,650 in Mexico; in the U.S., $50,000

She also interviews Keith Smith, an Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, M.D. who was in our "True Tale of Canadian Health Care" vid:

Cochlear implants that can bring hearing to a deaf baby cost about $25,000. But Smith said hospitals mark up the device to $75,000 and then charge $25,000 for the 90-minute surgery. He charges no markup and $8,800 for the operation.

OK City may not be as exotic as Kuala Lumpur, but posting his prices online has allowed Smith to compete with faraway destinations.

Read the whole Lochhead piece to get a sense of how markets in health care could work. And then watch Smith in the vid below: