Medical tourism may be the remedy for high US health care costs

Published in the Daily Illini April 23rd, 2012

While the Supreme Court quietly decides the fate of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act, a trend has emerged in the American health care market that will be unaffected by the Supreme Court’s decision: medical tourism.

This year alone, hundreds of thousands of Americans will travel to places like Singapore, India, Costa Rica, Mexico and Malaysia to receive everything from face-lifts to double-bypass heart surgeries — at steeply discounted prices.

Imagine: You experience whiplash from a car accident and herniate a disk in your neck. You are young, dumb and, of course, uninsured. The surgery will cost you a hefty $90,000 at an American hospital, but a United States-trained surgeon in Bangkok can do it for under $10,000 at Bumrungrad Hospital, the booming “marble-floored mecca of the medical trade”.

This is what really happened to Kevin Miller, a 45-year-old chiropractor from Louisiana, whose story was documented by Time. He wisely decided to hop onto the next plane to Thailand to save a clean $80,000. Nowadays, you can (almost) buy an entire university education for that.

Medical tourism is bound to strike the competitive chord that so naturally resonates in the American soul. According to Uwe Reinhardt, a Princeton University health care economist, it has the potential to be an industry-wide rejuvenation that could mimic “what the Japanese auto industry did to American carmakers.”
The huge price-gaps are catching a lot of attention, and American firms are beginning to absorb this new demand. PlanetHospital, an agency that works with private insurance companies to incentivize their clients to go abroad, sent around 200 people overseas in seven months, then got 11,000 inquiries last March alone. Those types of numbers are certainly going to climb higher in the near future given astronomical costs of the current American health care system.

For example, in 2009 the French paid $3,978 per person for their socialized care, while the Swiss paid $5,144 per person for a privatized system (which requires their citizens to buy insurance, much like the Republican’s “individual mandate”).

That same year, American’s paid $7,960 per person for care that leaves them more obese and more likely to have hypertension, yet they are prescribed to more pills than every other industrialized nation.

The data reveals the popular dichotomy — private insurance vs. government programs — to be an irrelevant distraction that derides away the core elementary variable that determines every nation’s health: In the end, someone has to pay for it. Every country has its own way of dealing with this problem, but ours is statistically the worst.

Medical tourism can address the out-of-control health costs in the way that the Affordable Health Care Act hasn’t. It offers the consumer a less-expensive alternative to the prevailing price structure.

But what are the hidden costs for going abroad for cheaper health care?

One is definitely the overall risk factor of traveling to a foreign country that will deter the less-intrepid and elderly folks. Also, the general quality and safety of the tourist hospitals are in question. In response, many hospitals now seek accreditation from the Joint Commission International, the global division of the institution that approves U.S. hospitals.

The American health care system is in dire need of restructuring. Right now, the status quo is that we’re paying more money than every developed country to die faster than them. Since this isn’t a very healthy way to stay competitive in the 21st century, going abroad for health care may be a consumer-controlled alternative that will reduce the absurd price we are currently paying.