Traveling for medical care

Created date

July 8th, 2016
Graphic showing an airplane and stethoscope

Graphic showing an airplane and stethoscope

What enjoyable activities do you plan when you visit another country? Maybe seeing interesting sights, learning about local customs, and eating exotic foods top your list. But each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), at the top of 750,000 people’s lists is a visit to the local hospital for medical treatment—a practice known as medical tourism.

Americans seek health care somewhere rather than home for several reasons. “Some people are uninsured and can’t afford care in the United States,” says Helle Sorensen, professor of tourism management at the Metropolitan State University of Denver in Denver, Colo. “For people with insurance, the treatments or procedures they want might not be covered by their plan.”

The CDC reports the most common categories of care for Americans outside of the country are orthopedic surgery, cosmetic surgery, heart surgery, cancer care, and dental procedures.

Plan ahead

The CDC recommends that older medical tourists see their primary doctor and a travel medicine specialist four to six weeks before the trip to discuss tips for healthy travel, vaccinations, and risks related to your intended procedure and destination. “Seniors could be taking medicines or have health conditions that could interact with travel medications,” says Charles Ericsson, M.D., head of clinical infectious diseases at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston. “Having a complete copy of your medical record and medication list with you is also very important.”

Traveling for medical care can be an overwhelming prospect. “Certain companies specialize in medical tourism,” Sorensen says. “They can assist in getting important things in place and help you be safer before and after procedures. You can get information about traveler’s insurance and emergency evacuation if there are unforeseen circumstances.”

Safety concerns

Medical tourism occurs worldwide, but surveys show that people in the United States tend to travel to less-developed countries. Hazards depend on the specific place and procedure(s), but there are some common considerations. “If you are not able to converse in the local language, misunderstandings about your care can occur,” Sorensen says.

Qualifications for health care professionals can vary significantly. “Doctors may not meet what are considered minimum competency standards in the United States,” Sorensen says. “The same holds true for hospitals and other health care facilities.” 

Studies show that some dangerous practices have been identified in less-developed countries, including reuse of needles and gloves; improper cleaning and sterilization techniques for equipment; use of substandard or counterfeit medications; and improper treatment for resistant bacteria. In addition, some countries pay blood donors or improperly screen for transmissible diseases, including hepatitis and HIV.

Staying healthy

If you are flying, jet cabins are pressurized to an equivalent of 5,000–8,000 feet above sea level; thus, oxygen levels might be slightly lower than what your body can tolerate. “People with lung disease or heart disease should check with their physician to determine whether it is safe to fly,” Ericsson says.

Flying can predispose you to blood clots in your legs, especially if you have had surgery. You can mitigate this risk by getting up and walking occasionally and exercising your leg muscles while seated. Although it means frequent bathroom trips, drinking plenty of nonalcoholic beverages can also be a preventive measure. “People with a clotting disorder may need to take certain medications before flying or wear compression stockings during the flight,” Ericsson says. 

Jet lag is a very real possibility if you are crossing times zones. “You want to leave enough time to be sufficiently recovered from jet lag before having surgery or a medical treatment,” Sorensen advises. 

Plan ahead for post-procedure care. “Many people focus on the medical procedure itself and forget about what happens afterward,” Sorensen says. “In an unfamiliar environment, it might be difficult to get the services or equipment you need.”

If you happen to be in a popular vacation spot, you might be tempted to have more fun. “Surgery can weaken your body, so unless your doctor consents, you may need to avoid activities like swimming, drinking alcoholic beverages, or going on a bus tour,” Sorensen says. 

Exercise extreme caution with what you eat or drink, especially in less-developed countries, to avoid traveler’s diarrhea. The CDC recommends avoiding raw foods, street food, tap water, fountain drinks, ice, freshly squeezed juice, and fruits or vegetables you can’t peel or wash yourself. “Dehydration can be dangerous and occur very quickly—especially if you are taking diuretics,” Ericsson says. “Keep plenty of bottled water around.” 

Common medical tourism countries for Americans









Costa Rica