Medical tourism

Sunway Medical Centre in Malaysia
Photo: Patients Beyond Borders

Bargain hunting for a new television or negotiating a better deal on a car is being a smart consumer. But what about shopping around for the best price on a major, life-altering surgery?

For those who are comfortable with the idea of medical tourism, the savings are enticing. The average cost of heart bypass surgery in the United States, for example, is $70,000. In India, the same surgery costs only $7,000—a whopping 90 percent less. For the 47 million uninsured people in the United States, these prices matter.

Josef Woodman, author of Patients Beyond Borders, has toured more than 140 medical facilities in 22 countries. He estimates that 240,000 Americans traveled for medical procedures in 2009, and the numbers are growing.

While the idea of going under the knife in a foreign country sounds daunting (if not dangerous), the Joint Commission International has given its approval to 240 hospitals around the world. The Joint Commission is the largest and most respected accreditation agency in the United States, Woodman says. To be approved, an international healthcare provider must meet the same rigorous standards as a hospital in the United States.

Photo: © 2009 Jupiterimages Corporation

Popular destinations: Mexico and Costa Rica
The most common treatments U.S. patients travel for are dental procedures, Woodman says. While a cleaning or simple procedure is probably not worth travel costs, the savings become significant for patients who need multiple teeth fixed or full mouth restorations.

Average dental implant procedure:
United States: $2,200
Mexico: $1,500
Cost Rica: $725

A patient room in Severance Hospital in Korea
Photo: Patients Beyond Borders

Cosmetic Surgery
Popular destinations: Thailand, Panama, Korea, Mexico, Costa Rica
Traveling overseas for a cosmetic procedure like breast augmentation, liposuction or a facelift is not a new concept, but Woodman says it's a growing market. 

Average facelift procedure:
United States: $10,500
Thailand: $5,000
Panama: $2,500

Singapore General Hospital
Photo: Patients Beyond Borders

Orthopedic Surgery
Popular destinations: India, Thailand, Singapore
As the baby boomers get to the age when knee and hip replacements abound, the number of orthopedic surgeries abroad is increasing. 

Average knee replacement surgery:
United States: $30,000
India: $10,200
Thailand: $11,500
Singapore: $9,600

Bumrungrad Int'l Hospital in Thailand
Photo: Patients Beyond Borders

Gastric Bypass Surgery
Popular destinations: Mexico, Costa Rica, Thailand
Remember that major, invasive surgeries like gastric bypass surgery require longer recovery periods. Woodman advises asking what recovery time your physician recommends and adding a few extra days, just to be safe.

Average gastric bypass surgery:
United States: $35,000
Thailand: $13,000

Wockhardt Hospital in India
Photo: Patients Beyond Borders

Cardiac Surgery
Popular destinations: India, Malaysia
Cardiac surgeries overseas offer the some of the greatest savings across the board. "That includes everything from stints and angioplasty all the way to pacemakers and heart bypass surgeries," Woodman says. "The savings can be just huge." 

Average heart bypass surgery:
United States: $70,000
India: $7,000
Malaysia: $12,000

Although an international hospital may be accredited, it's important to research hospitals and physicians before making any decisions. Whether the procedure is large or small, all surgeries carry risks. Here are 10 must-ask questions for a potential physician.