Medical tourism: Sun, sand and stitches

Written by ProfitGuide Staff

Andrea is one of thousands of Canadians who flew to Mexico in February for a mid-winter pick-me-up. But instead of trekking the Sierra Madre and sipping mojitos, her itinerary included a facelift, a tummy tuck and liposuction.

Andrea (not her real name), an entrepreneur in southeastern B.C., balked when a surgeon in her hometown quoted her a fee of $28,000 for the procedures. She took her research online and found Surgical Tourism Canada, a Vancouver-based company that coordinates trips for medical treatment in other countries. It arranged Andrea’s travel to Cabo San Lucas, booked the surgeries and acquired insurance and ground transportation. The price, including flights and deluxe hotel, medication, post-op nursing care and surgical garments, was $15,000.

It was a steal compared with what she’d pay for similar care in Canada, without compromising quality. Her doctor visited her daily, sometimes twice, to check on her. She was amazed by how much the medical staff genuinely cared, and she says that language wasn’t an issue. Now well into her recovery, Andrea is “absolutely” pleased with the results. “Did I ever think I wouldn’t be taken care of? Never,” she says. “Was I worried about the standard of care? I think it exceeds Canada’s, to be honest with you. Would I go again? In a heartbeat.”

Medical tourism — the practice of pursuing lower-priced or faster medical treatment in other countries — is on the rise. Frustrated by long queues for necessary surgery or put off by the high cost of elective procedures at home, Canadians are flocking to hospitals in Singapore, Mexico, Cuba, Costa Rica, India and Thailand for everything from hip replacements to heart surgery. It could be the ideal solution for entrepreneurs, who need health care that can dovetail with their personal and professional timelines. Medical tourists can schedule surgery when and where they want, and even choose the surgeon. Overseas, wait times are brief or non-existent, and the savings can be substantial. According to Winnipeg-based agency Choice Medical Services, a hip replacement would cost C$63,000 in the U.S., but just C$8,000 in Cuba — a discount of almost 80%.

Josef Woodman, author of Patients Beyond Borders, estimates that medical tourism in the U.S. is rising each year by 15% to 30%, and he believes that growth in Canada is similar. By 2010, medical travel is expected to be a $40-billion-a-year business.

Experts credit the Internet for the boom. Online searches provide data about hospital accreditation, physicians’ credentials, success rates and benchmarks, and this wealth of info is busting myths about the industry. “Doctors and consumers alike have a built-in bias that they’re going to get surgery in a mud hut with a rusty scalpel and untrained physicians; nothing could be further from the truth,” says Woodman. “We’re talking about a very select group of hospitals that are built and maintained to cater to affluent international patients.”

It pays to be an informed consumer. Whether you arrange your trip yourself or go though one of about 15 health travel agencies in Canada, your first step should be to investigate your health condition, available treatments, and whether you’re a candidate. Then, find the best hospitals, surgeons and even countries for your treatment, as some nations are renowned for their excellence in certain procedures. Woodman recommends starting with Joint Commission International (, which accredits hospitals worldwide to U.S. standards of health care. You’ll also need to learn your responsibilities — for example, what’s required before, during and after the trip.

John Stinson, CEO of Choice Medical Services, says travellers should allow two weeks for the surgery and recovery time. If you aren’t well enough to handle the rigours of international travel, medical tourism probably isn’t your best choice. Even if you can hack a long flight, the uncertainty of surgery and being away from home can pose an emotional risk.

If you’re not willing to invest significant time and money in major overseas surgery, you can tack on minor medical work to a planned vacation, in much the way you might add an extra tourist attraction to your itinerary. Nitin Jain, director of Oakville, Ont.-based GJG International Inc., which distributes construction components, topped off a visit to relatives in New Delhi with an executive medical checkup. For $150 (about a tenth of what he would pay in Canada) and four hours, he was examined by several specialists and underwent blood and urine tests, a chest X-ray and an ultrasound, among other procedures. “It felt like going to a spa,” says Jain, “the way you could choose what you want to get done.”

Whatever tests or procedures you have done abroad, Andrea says, above all have the right attitude and realistic expectations. “You’re not there to party — you’re there to recover.”

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