5 hot spots that offer big savings on health care for medical tourists

Costa Rica
Frans Lanting | Getty Images
Costa Rica

Affordable healthcare isn't a myth. In fact, healthcare systems in other countries can be equally as good—if not better—than that in the U.S.—and charge far less for their services.

As more and more U.S. retirees learn that better and faster healthcare is available abroad at a fraction of the cost they're accustomed to paying at home, a growing number of them are opting to take advantage of what's called "medical tourism."

It's not uncommon for these medical tourists to save tens of thousands of dollars—or even more—on medical treatments without sacrificing quality.

A new report from International Living highlights five of the top countries medical tourists are seeking out for high-quality, affordable medical care.

Costa Rica

The World Health Organization ranks Costa Rica's healthcare system slightly above that of the U.S. This achievement is the result of a large government investment in the health sector. The influx of foreigners in Costa Rica has also been a big incentive for private hospitals to open and expand their operations.

With hundreds of board-certified physicians, surgeons, and dentists practicing in or near the capital city of San José, health travel has gained a strong foothold in this nation of more than 4.7 million people.

Tens of thousands of Americans, including many retirees, live in Costa Rica, and more than 700,000 Americans make annual visits. Around 15 percent of international tourists come specifically to take advantage of Costa Rica's medical services, mostly cosmetic surgery and dental care. And the nation is among the top five visited by Americans for medical treatment.


For decades, North Americans have come to Cali and Medellín for cosmetic surgery—a tummy tuck here, a facelift there, and a few implants to round things out.

But today, people come to Colombia for all sorts of complex medical treatments. According to the prestigious financial publication, América Economía, which assembles an annual list of the region's top medical facilities, eight of Medellín's hospitals ranked among the top 43 in all of Latin America last year.

Between 2012 and 2013, medical tourism in Colombia increased by over 60 percent. In 2013, 50,000 medical tourists pumped an estimated $216 million into the Colombian healthcare system.

In most cases, North Americans are able to save 40 percent on healthcare in Colombia over costs at home, and in many cases, even more.

"It's not uncommon for medical tourists to save tens of thousands of dollars—or even more—on medical treatments without sacrificing quality."


In Mexico, most doctors and dentists receive at least part of their training in the U.S. (And many U.S. doctors have trained in Mexico, notably in Guadalajara.) Many of them continue to go to the U.S. or Europe for on-going training. Every mid-size to large city in Mexico has at least one good hospital.

Mexico's combination of well-trained doctors, modern hospitals, low prices, and proximity to the U.S. has made it a popular medical-tourism destination for U.S. residents. Many Mexican towns along the U.S./Mexico border have thriving dental and medical practices, thanks to their many U.S. patients. And some cities farther into Mexico, notably Puerto Vallarta and Mérida, have become medical-tourism centers because they offer several excellent hospitals and dental practices in one city.

Several private U.S. hospital chains own and run hospitals in Mexico. Most notably, International Hospital Corporation of Dallas has four hospitals that it operates in Mexico under the CIMA name.

Texas-based Christus Health Systems operates seven hospitals in Mexico under the Christus Muguerza name. In addition, several top-notch, Mexican-owned hospital chains (notably Star Médica and the Los Ángeles chain) are popular.


Malaysia has gained fame as a medical-tourism destination because its healthcare is among the world's best—and cheapest. Malaysia has both public and private healthcare with medical expertise equal to or better than that in most Western countries.

The majority of the doctors and dentists are trained in the U.S. and the U.K. It's a country where medical tourism has been taken to the next level, and it's a secret that the rest of Asia has known for a long time. In fact, 80 percent of all medical tourists coming into Malaysia are from its neighboring countries, including Thailand and Singapore—medical tourism enclaves themselves.

Both Penang and Kuala Lumpur are serviced by airlines from around the world and have many reasonably priced hotel rooms and excellent public transportation systems. Malaysian Tourism, which began promoting medical tourism in Malaysia in 2002, is actively courting more Western tourists booking in for what Asian tourists have been benefitting from for many years.


Along with being a low-cost and tropical retirement haven, Thailand has long been an international destination for medical tourism. In fact, the "Land of Smiles" is ranked among the world's 50 best healthcare systems by the World Health Organization.

Many doctors undertake specialist training abroad (usually in the U.S. and Europe), and are at least as well qualified as physicians in the West—often more so. Large private hospitals are also staffed with translators to assist foreigners in communicating with those medical professionals who don't speak English (although many of them do speak English).

After 1997 and the Asian financial crisis, local health professionals found themselves with gleaming new hospitals and an abundance of empty beds that they couldn't fill. And so the country started going all out to become a global center for almost all types of cosmetic procedures. Costs are far cheaper than in the West, and many centers offer packages that also include recuperation in a holiday resort. Costs for medical services in Thailand can be 50 percent to 80 percent less than similar procedures in the U.S.

Commentary by Laura Doyle, deputy editorial director, InternationalLiving.com, based in Waterford, Ireland. Follow her on Twitter @inliving.

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