Medical Tourism 101, A Complete Guide


Why does it seem like Starbucks has a store on every corner where you live? Because the company knows most of us won’t go even one block out of our way to get a cup o’ cappuccino. Why then, are tens of thousands of people choosing to travel halfway around the world for surgical procedures? It’s called “medical tourism,” and you might find yourself considering it soon as well.

What is medical tourism?

Rapidly becoming a multi-billion dollar industry, medical tourism is the catch-all phrase describing travel to other countries primarily for medical or dental care. Along with elective plastic surgery procedures like face-lifts and implants, medical tourists also travel for highly specialized operations like heart surgery, cancer treatment, and hip replacement. Some medical tours include pre-operation sightseeing, luxury accommodations, and extensive post-op care.

Why would I consider it?

Your reasons for choosing to travel for medical care depend on where you live. In the US, medical costs are skyrocketing, and many elective procedures aren’t covered by insurance. Procedures abroad maybe a fourth or even a tenth of what they might be at home.

In countries with nationalized health such as Canada or Great Britain, the waiting times for treatment may simply be too long, and the cost to see a physician in private practice is too high.

You may also become a medical tourist if you’d like to combine an exotic vacation with a tummy tuck or, on a more serious note, if you’re seeking alternative treatments for cancer or other diseases.

How much money can I save?

The short answer is, potentially lots. For example, a heart valve replacement that would normally cost $200,000 in the US would be $10,000 in India – including round-trip airfare, and a quick vacation package. Looking for a face-lift? This will raise your eyebrows instantly: the price tag is $15,000 in the US, but only $2,600 in Bolivia (And lest you think the Bolivians are amateurs at this, more than 70% of middle and upper-class women in Bolivian have had at least one cosmetic procedure).

According to a CBS News: 60 Minutes report, one patient who received coronary artery bypass surgery in Thailand said the operation cost him $12,000, as opposed to the $100,000 he estimated the operation would have cost him at home in the US.

How do I choose a country for my procedure?

It depends on what type of procedure you’re seeking. Some destinations specialize in medical procedures while others are best known for cosmetic surgery. If the procedure you’re seeking is elective and non-critical, you may be most interested in a country with beautiful antiquities or beaches.

Countries actively promoting medical tourism for medical procedures include India, Singapore, Thailand, Cuba, Hong Kong, Hungary, Israel, Jordan, Lithuania, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

For plastic surgery, the hotspots are Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Turkey. South Africa specializes not just in medical tourism, but “medical safaris” – lions, elephants, AND a nose job. However, the country with the most expertise in plastic surgery maybe Brazil, as more plastic and cosmetic surgery procedures are performed in this country annually than in the whole of the European Union.

India, Thailand, and Singapore have been most aggressive in building their medical tourism business to date:


The sub-continent is so committed to generating revenue from medical tourists, the country’s National Health Policy actually declares that treatment of foreign patients is legally an “export” and deemed “eligible for all fiscal incentives extended to export earnings.” It’s estimated that medical tourism to India is growing by 30% a year.

India boasts 5 hospitals accredited by the US-based Joint Commission International and a global reputation for superior hip resurfacing and heart surgery. It may be somewhat anecdotal, one Indian hospital, Escorts Heart Institute and Research Centers located in Delhi and Faridabad, claims to perform nearly 15,000 heart operations every year with a post-surgery mortality rate of only 0.8 percent – less than half of most major hospitals in the United States. Most medical treatment costs start at about a tenth of the price of comparable treatment in the US. However, for US travelers, extremely long travel times can be a deterrent.


As Asia’s leading medical hub, Singapore has a reputation for excellent quality, safety, and trustworthiness, along with advanced research and technology. In 2006, Singapore hosted the first international Medical Travel Conference with participants from 21 countries coming together to discuss the issues and challenges facing the medical travel industry. Nine hospitals in this small country are accredited by JCI.


  1. Fill out an application with your details and medical needs.
  2. Talk with a US-based case manager to select the hospital, doctor(s) and get a cost estimate.
  3. Pay a deposit – avoid companies that want to charge you 100% upfront.
  4. Have a phone conference with your chosen doctor and on-site case manager.
  5. Fly to your destination for your procedure, where you’ll be met by your on-site case manager.
  6. Meet with your physician for a pre-op consultation.
  7. Have your surgery and recover sufficiently for your post-op vacation or return journey (for some procedures, it may be more practical to have the “tourist” part of your trip first.

How does insurance figure in?

For the most part in the US, health insurance companies will not cover non-elective procedures overseas – and certainly not elective. In other words, you would be responsible for 100% of your own medical costs.

In the future, however, employers may offer overseas medical treatment as an option to their covered employees, according to Dr. Arnold Milstein, of Mercer Human Resource Consulting, who has been retained by five Fortune 500 companies to determine whether outsourcing healthcare can be a viable option.

It’s also possible to obtain medical insurance while traveling, but it will only cover you in the event of an emergency occurring on that trip. Whether or not you would be covered during an emergency that occurs as a consequence of other medical treatment you were receiving is another question. I would suspect the answer is no.

So should I do it?

If you’re seeking a relatively common elective cosmetic procedure, certainly shopping abroad should figure into your decision process. If you have no or limited medical coverage, and need some serious treatment, traveling abroad may be the only option you can afford. In any case, make certain you’ve spoken in-depth with your home physician, fully understand the medical risk, and thoroughly research the physician and facility you intend to visit.