Is medical tourism worth the hassle for expats?

Published:  6 Dec at 6 PM
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Given that private healthcare almost anywhere is far cheaper than in the USA and often a deal cheaper than in the UK’s failing NHS, is it really worth shopping around for necessary operations?

In the USA, commonly-performed operations such as knee transplants cost between $35,000 and $50,000, with the UK equivalent costing from around £12,000 to £15,000, still a hefty charge for pensioners and those earning basic wages. Websites offering medical tourism at a far lower price are tempting, but often the hype doesn’t match the experiences of expats living in the countries concerned. For expat professionals on relocation, medical insurance is invariably part of the package, giving a good choice of local specialists as a result, but in the majority of destinations outside Europe, expat-aimed private healthcare insurance is a cash cow for insurers and private hospitals rather than a lifeline for the insured.

It’s fairly common nowadays for expats living in Southeast Asia to head for India for their surgical needs, as the English language is widely spoken in hospitals, the costs are far lower than in neighbouring countries and expertise seems to be more easily found. For those with more money and less time, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur are favourites, and for expats based in Europe, Spain is by far the best choice, with costs far lower than in Southeast Asia and a reputation as second to none on the entire continent. For example, the average cost of a knee replacement in a Vietnamese private hospital is between £6,500 and £8,000, whilst the same operation in a Spanish hospital runs out at around £7,000 inclusive – not a great deal of difference for expats but another world as regards expertise.

For all except American citizens, who’d save on their hospital costs almost anywhere on the planet, it helps to remember that private healthcare in less-than-overall first world countries has burgeoned for one good reason – money, as in ‘license to print’. If you’re planning to undergo an operation in all but first-world countries, it pays to investigate the systems as well as the surgeons, as in many developing countries it’s usual for medical specialists to work for all hospitals in an area, with the private hospitals charging far more than their local equivalents for the same service from the same specialist surgeon. All told, medical tourists hoping to get a great deal and a perfect result by going overseas may well be literally taking their lives in their hands by hoping to save a few bucks on their treatment.
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