By Peggy McDaniel, BSN, RN

Coronelli's Globes, by photogestion/via flickr

Coronelli's Globes, by photogestion/via flickr

Medical tourism is becoming mainstream. USA Today recently reported that over 750,000 Americans left this country to seek medical care abroad in 2007 and 1.7 million are expected to go abroad for health care in 2010. The chance to receive high quality, low-cost dental care outside of the US, as well as other procedures with high out-of-pocket costs (especially for those on high-deductible plans or with no insurance), has drawn consumers to other countries both near and far.

While our own government seeks to tame the rising costs of health care, the top four insurers in this country have either started to provide customers the option of going abroad for care or have at least considered it. Smaller insurers are offering this option as well. If our own insurance companies are paying for Americans to head overseas for care, what does that say about the cost and quality of what’s available in the good old USA?

Historically, some Americans with no health insurance or limited retirement funds may have retired to places such as Mexico, where care is much cheaper. Many countries offer tiered health care options that include both public options as well as different levels of private care. Perhaps partly due to the growth of medical tourism, many hospitals in other countries are now state of the art and can compete with hospitals in the U.S. on all levels, including quality. Of course, traveling for health care is really only practical for nonemergent types of procedures, and the cost of the travel itself has to be taken into consideration (travel costs are often easily offset by the savings in cost of care, and some recent promotions by insurers encourage patients to head overseas by offering to pay travel costs for the patient and a companion).

Obviously there are risks and legal issues around seeking care in other countries. Possible exposure to infectious diseases not often seen in the U.S. comes to mind. And legally you may have little to no recourse when accepting care from those in other countries.

All that and more aside, I think the more worrisome issue is the fact that our own insurers are sending patients to other countries for care. What do you think? Does that touch a chord down deep inside of you as a health care provider in the United States? It does for me. It just seems wrong. If our own insurance companies have found our health care too expensive, it’s time to do something about it.

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