Medical tourism — where patients struggling to afford or find the right treatment at home head overseas — is booming, with many countries jostling to offer high-quality health care at a good price. In 2013, around 900,000 Americans traveled overseas for treatment, according to Patients Beyond Borders, a provider of medical travel information. And that number looks set to increase: 50 million Americans were either uninsured or underinsured for health care in 2013, according to the U.S.'s Medical Tourism Resource Guide.
However, health tourism is not the preserve of Americans — around 8 million patients from across the world seek overseas treatment each year, contributing to a global industry worth $24-$40 billion, says Patients Beyond Borders.
Reasons other than cost to travel overseas for health care include better treatment, as well as avoiding long waiting lists and dodging questions from colleagues and family.
Dentistry and cosmetic treatments in particular are commonly sought abroad. Click ahead to learn more about some of the most popular destinations for health care tourism, according to providers including Patients Beyond Borders and consultancies such as Deloitte.
Patients Beyond Borders estimates that between 200,000 and 1.1 million patients headed to Mexico for treatment in 2013. The broad range is due to the many undocumented Hispanics living in the states of California, Arizona and Texas who return to Mexico for treatment. What is known is that the country benefits from its proximity to the U.S., with more than 50,000 Americans crossing the border each year purely for dental work, according to Patients Beyond Borders.
Mexico also specializes in weight loss treatment and surgery. Cities near the U.S. border, like Monterrey, Tijuana and Juarez, boast hospitals which offer weight-management programs to obese Americans — at 40-70 percent of the cost of treatment at home, according to Patients Beyond Borders.
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India's medical tourism market is expected to reach $3.9 billion in 2014, up from $1.9 billion three years ago, according to a 2014 report from Deloitte. More than 250,000 international patients head to the country annually, says Patient Beyond Borders, typically to large cities like Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Mumbai and New Delhi.
India has experienced an influx of patients from surrounding countries with less developed health care systems, such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and central Asia. Some come from further afield, including Africa and the Middle East. The country is also becoming popular with Americans, Canadians and Europeans for cost reasons.
Popular treatments to have in India include those for fertility, orthopedic, cardiac and oncology problems and organ transplants. According to the Medical Tourism Resource Guide, a heart valve is worth about $15,000, versus $150,000 in the U.S.
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Thailand is known for its meticulous cosmetic surgery, including gender reassignment. Up to 1.2 million individuals traveled to the south-east Asian country in 2013, according to Patients Beyond borders.
The Thai capital of Bangkok is home to one of the world's best known hospitals for medical tourists, Bumrungrad International, which has been seeing foreign patients for 20 years. It has over 900 physicians across 55 specialities and sees around 1,000 international patients every day.
Treatment in Thailand comes at 50-70 percent of the cost in the U.S. — and up to 30,000 American health tourists travel there each year, according to the Medical Tourism Research Guide. Bumrungrad International prices a nose job at 169,000 Thai bahts ($5,205) on its website.
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Brazil is another popular destination for cosmetic surgery — unsurprisingly perhaps, given that even Brazil's pets are said to undergo surgical enhancement.
Treatment destinations for humans include the Ivo Pitanguy Clinic in Rio de Janeiro, headed by its namesake, the "king of plastic surgery", Ivo Pitanguy. Among other services, the clinic offers a psychotherapist to help patients adjust to their new look post-surgery. Its average price for rhinoplasty is 28,000 Brazilian reals ($11,841).
Around 180,000 foreign patients went to Brazil last year, according to Patients Beyond Borders and Americans can save between 20 and 30 percent by opting for treatment based in the country.
Building on Singapore's global reputation for high-quality health care, its government is promoting it as a regional center of excellence for general surgery and medicine, as well as cardiology, oncology and organ transplants.
Between 400,000 and 610,000 patients traveled to Singapore for treatment in 2013, according to Patients Beyond Borders, with 70 percent arriving from nearby Indonesia.
The Medical Travel Quality Alliance rated Gleneagles Hospital in Singapore as one of the world's top-10 hospitals for medical tourism last year. It specialities include cardiology, gastroenterology, liver transplants and orthopaedics and it is owned by Parkway Hospital Group, which operates hospitals throughout Asia. An operation to remove damaged cartilage from inside the knee will cost between 10,563 and 13,097 Singapore dollars ($8,330-$10,329).
Another popular destination for Indonesians is Malaysia. Patients Beyond Borders estimates that 80 percent of health tourists who traveled to Malaysia last year were from the nearby country.
The organization describes Malaysia as medical travel's best-kept secrets, "with fluent English spoken everywhere and cost-savings comparable to India, in less culturally jarring settings."
Around 670,000 people travel to Malaysia each year, typically for "executive" healthcare screenings in the cities of Kuala Lumpur or Penang. Patients Beyond Borders estimates that a full screening — including vision, dental, hearing and MRI and PET scans — will cost around $1,500.
Despite the high price of treatment, between 600,000 and 800,000 foreign patients opted for U.S.-based treatment last year, according to Patients Beyond Borders.
Renowned clinics that attract international patients include the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland and Mayo Clinic, which has branches across Arizona, Florida and Minnesota.
"A private U.S. hospital typically offers technologies and surgical expertise considered too expensive or too specialized for patients in many other countries," says Patients Beyond Borders on its website.
The Healthcare Bluebook, which helps U.S. patients find "fair" prices for healthcare, recommends a hip replacement, for instance, should cost around $22,606.
Bordering Greece to the West, Turkey benefits from its proximity to Western Europe and its popularity with Europeans as a general tourist destination. Many European and American-trained doctors are now stationed in the country, and provide cardiac, cancer and orthopedic care.
The country has established itself as a center for eye treatment in particular, and offers inexpensive laser surgery. The Dünyagöz Hospitals Group, for instance, runs eye-care centers across Turkey, as well as Holland, Germany and England, and is a popular choice for foreign patients. It caters to almost 30,000 medical tourists a year from over 100 countries. Laser treatment on both eyes starts at 750 euros ($1,042), including three nights' stay in hospital.
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The ex-Soviet state is popular with German, Austrian and Swiss citizens seeking cheaper dentistry and well-equipped medical facilities near to home. One town — Gyor in northwest Hungary — boasts more than 150 dental clinics serving international patients, according to Patients Beyond Borders.
Cosmetic or restorative dental procedures in Hungary cost between 40 percent and 75 percent of what they would in the U.S., says Patients Beyond Borders.
Other central European countries like Poland and the Czech Republic are also attracting foreign patients — mostly other Europeans — following grants from the European Union to boost their facilities.