Many Americans have come to rely on foreign nations’ healthcare systems for affordable but good quality dentistry, in vitro fertilization, orthopedic surgery or even cancer treatment.
Like any travel-dependent industry, medical travel was deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. But for one leading company, the U.S. outbound market never shut down completely and is now experiencing a rebound.
“Even last March the U.S. market was still at about 5-10% of normal,” says Jacob Pope, Chief Operating Officer of Medical Departures, an Expedia for medical travel. “We were still seeing activity in the drive-to-Mexico market.”
Since winter, Medical Departures has enjoyed a large-scale recovery. “U.S. traffic of patients at this point is roughly the same as it was before the pandemic,” says Pope. “And in dollar terms it’s actually up by 20% to 50%, depending on who you ask. It’s people who’ve deferred larger treatments.”
Judging the size of the US outbound medical travel market is tricky. Experts cite figures ranging to one million as the number of Americans traveling abroad for medical services each year.
Pope says Medical Departures account for about 15% of total U.S. outbound business, and sends 100,000 or more Americans each year to Mexico alone. He estimates that roughly 780,000 Americans in total went abroad for healthcare in the prepandemic year of 2019.
One factor industry participants do agree on is that medical travel is a growing, multibillion-dollar worldwide market– and that interest is rising among Americans. Some experts say the rate of growth is as much as 15-20% each year.
South of the Border
When Americans think of medical travel, some might imagine pricy cosmetic surgery in exotic destinations like Bangkok or Barcelona. That’s part of the market, but for a growing number of Americans, medical travel means heading south of the border to Mexico for dental treatment.
Josef Woodman, author of “Patients Beyond Borders,” explains the phenomenon. “Most U.S. outbound traffic today is border travel by car,” he says. “People feel safer and there are many repeat customers. Many have been going for years–all the way from Texas to California.”
Woodman was in Mexico recently for his own dental treatment, and says pandemic safety measures are being observed closely. “People are still freaked out by the pandemic, but they shouldn’t be,” he stresses. “I was in Cancun recently for dental work, and they are way more compliant with Covid protocols. You have to get your temperature taken everywhere, and masking of course.”
Medical Departures’ Pope says the most popular procedures his firm handles bookings for are implants and complete mouth reconstruction.
“With dental work,” he says, “Mexico has positioned itself as a very good destination. They have dentists that are trained in the top schools, or many in the U.S. There are towns on the Mexican border that are half pharmacies and half dental clinics, and you get this drive-to border traffic.”
The reason Americans seek dental treatment in Mexico boils down to cost and poor insurance coverage in the U.S. “If you’re an American, dental insurance has limited coverage and increasingly high copays,” Pope notes. “This leads to more people traveling overseas for dentistry, because everyone needs dental work.”
|Procedure||US Average||Mexico Average||Percent Savings|
|Botox (per unit)||$15||$12||20.00%|
|In Vitro Fertilization||$12,000||$5,100||57.50%|
|Laser Eye Surgery (per eye)||$2,200||$1,200||45.45%|
Major Medical Issues
Major medical treatments sought by Americans overseas tend to be pricey treatments like in vitro fertilization and orthopedic surgery.
“When it comes to major medical treatments, IVF is popular because it’s extraordinarily expensive in the US, and it’s relatively safe,” Pope says. “Orthopedics is a similar concept. Even if you’re covered in the US, it can still be more expensive than doing it out of pocket in Mexico.”
There are also specific markets for certain procedures that Americans pursue due to their connections with a given country. “For example, India is a destination for heart surgery,” notes Pope, “but mostly among people with a South Asian connection.”
Whether people travel for dentistry, cosmetic or major medical procedures, they should keep in mind that most U.S. health insurance will not cover procedures outside the country.
“Patients should balance their U.S. costs against the total cost of overseas procedures and travel, and keep safety as their first priority,” says HealthCare.com cofounder Jeff Smedsrud. “Medical travelers should also remember that many countries require U.S. citizens to have travel insurance in order to visit.”
The pandemic may ultimately provide a shot in the arm to medical travel by sparking a surge in telehealth.
“Telehealth could make people more comfortable with medical travel,” says Tricia Johnson, a professor of healthcare finance and medical travel expert at Rush University.
She notes that people will be able to use telehealth for consultations prior to scheduling procedures abroad. “For a person who has no sense of where they’re traveling to, it gives them a sense of connection with their caregiver,” Johnson says. “If you’re seeking something complex, this allows you to get comfortable.”
Experts agree that as long as medical treatments remain cheaper abroad than in the U.S. and the quality good, the medical travel market will continue to grow.
But in the near future, medical travel’s prospects depend on the pandemic. “If vaccinations continue to increase and case counts go down, I expect continued growth,” Pope says. “But if a new variant spreads and vaccines aren’t effective, then all bets are off.”
- Patients Beyond Borders. https://www.patientsbeyondborders.com
- International Medical Travel Journal. https://www.laingbuissonnews.com/category/imtj/
- American College of Surgeons (ACS). Statement on medical and surgical travel: www.facs.org/about-acs/statements/65-surgical-travel
- American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ASAPS). Guidelines for patients seeking cosmetic procedures abroad: www.surgery.org/consumers/consumer-resources/consumer-tips/guidelines-for-patients-seeking-cosmetic-procedures-abroad
- Organization for Safety, Asepsis, and Prevention. Traveler’s guide to safe dental care: www.osap.org/?page=TravelersGuide
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/yellowbook/2020/travel-for-work-other-reasons/medical-travel
- World Health Organization. Guiding principles on human cell, tissue and organ transplantation: https://www.who.int/transplantation/Guiding_PrinciplesTransplantation_WHA63.22en.pdf
- US Department of State: Your Health Abroad https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/international-travel/before-you-go/your-health-abroad.html
- Medical Tourism Association. https://www.medicaltourism.com/mta/home
- Medical Departures. https://www.medicaldepartures.com/
- Medicaltravel.com. https://www.medicaltravel.com/
- Health-Tourism.com. https://www.health-tourism.com/
- Booking Health. https://bookinghealth.com/
- WhatClinic. https://www.whatclinic.com/
- TreatmentAbroad. https://www.treatmentabroad.com/
- Medical tourists should be aware of the risks traveling with a medical condition or during recovery from a procedure.
- Medical tourists are advised to request copies of their medical records should they require follow-up care in the U.S.
- Medical tourists should avoid activities such as water sports, sunbathing or drinking alcohol.
- The American Society of Plastic Surgeons advises people who have undergone certain procedures to wait 7-10 days before flying.
- The American College of Surgeons (ACS) recommends that medical tourists use facilities that are internationally accredited by bodies such as the Joint Commission International or the International Society for Quality in Health Care.
- Patients should be informed of their rights and legal recourse before agreeing to travel outside the United States for medical care.