Is Medical Tourism an Unrealistic Idea

Any American who wants to retire young will inevitably face the question of medical insurance. Where will I acquire it and how much will it cost me? When my husband owned his own business we paid $1200 per month for insurance premiums alone.

In a good year everyone stayed healthy and we only visited the doctor for physicals and other well checkups. Even in that best case scenario we paid $14,400 for coverage we practically never used.

In a bad year we paid that much and then added on another $6,000 to meet our deductible. That’s a whole lot of money. No doubt it.

In an effort to get around this problem a lot of FIRE blogs talk about medical tourism. Here’s why I think medical tourism is an unrealistic idea.

You Can’t Plan for an Emergency

Let’s start with the obvious. Many medical problems arise as emergencies. You can hit the gym, be at peak physical fitness, eat healthy, never miss your annual physical and still get unexpectedly sick. If you don’t believe me ask the all-star athlete who experienced an unexpected heart attack or the neighbor who was recently involved in a head-on collision.

While we can control many aspects of our health we cannot control all of them. Physical fitness and healthy eating play a role, but so do genetics and unknown abnormalities in the human body. Not to mention sometimes shit just happens. Even to those of us who work hard to stay fit.

When you are in the middle of a crisis you will call 9-1-1 and find yourself riding in an ambulance to the nearest hospital. There isn’t time to plan a flight to another country or ask around for the cheapest medical care.

Nope. In an emergency you will be sent to the nearest hospital and you will thank God or whatever power you believe in for helping you receive care.

Stuck Where You Started

Okay, now i know what you are thinking. You get to the emergency room, the doctors resolve your issues and you get to head home, right? Not always. My mom was recently so sick that we couldn’t get her moved to another local hospital let alone fly her out of the country.

A lot of surgeries occur relatively quickly. What if you are diagnosed with a tumor that needs to be removed immediately or a life saving operation that cannot wait? You don’t have a few days or weeks to search for doctors and make travel plans.

In reality I think medical tourism is an unrealistic idea for most medical disorders.

The Best Medicine

If you’ve never been sick it’s easy to say you’ll ship yourself overseas and place yourself at the mercy of any doctor who can fix your ailments. No problem, (you think), I’ll hop on a plane and search for care. Maybe you’ll even take a vacation while you are there.

But how will you find these doctors in a timely manner? How will you schedule time to visit with them and how do you know that they are the best surgeons or practitioners for your ailment?

When I faced a near-death crisis I wanted THE BEST CARE. In fact, at the time I would have given up all of my money, (and then some), in search of a cure. I contacted the Mayo Clinic and John’s Hopkins Medical Center in search of a world renowned medical expert who could help me. Interestingly, all of those experts were located in the United States. As luck would have it the most world renowned surgeon happened to work in a hospital less than an hour away from me.

If one of my children is diagnosed with a horrible disease I will do everything in my power to provide him with the very best care. In, fact I would be willing to uproot my entire life to help him heal. If the best hospital is in another country I would certainly fly him there, but I wouldn’t rush my child or other family member to an unknown clinic half way around the world to save a dollar.

The medical bills might very well roll in, but I would not hesitate to spend money to search for a cure. There is nothing in life more valuable than your health or the health of your family members. If you are faced with this crisis in real life you will recognize that fact.

We aren’t talking about clipping coupons to save on groceries. We are talking about decisions that can permanently change the state of your health.

Emotional Distress

When we think about poor health we typically focus on pain and illness in the body, but during a medical crisis emotional distress is nearly as powerful if not more powerful than the disease itself.

During that time the last thing I’d want to do is completely uproot my life. Ask anyone who has temporarily moved close to a hospital to help a loved one through treatments. What is more comforting than your own home? The soft feeling of your own sheets or the food placed in your own refrigerator.

The comforts of home will never feel as important as they do when you or a loved one is ill. Normalcy is important when it feels like everything else is crashing down around you.

In fact, I craved anything and everything that felt like it did before I was sick. I cannot imagine how disorienting it would feel to be in a foreign country during a crisis.

Friends, Family and Community

It’s tough to face a medical diagnosis alone. You may physically require the assistance of friends, neighbors and family members who can provide you with meals, clean your home or provide rides to chemotherapy or dialysis.

Sometimes you just need a friend to talk to. That includes spending time with someone who can listen to your frustrations, dry your tears or simply hold your hand. This is true for both the patient and the caretaker.

If you are very sick friends and family members may want to visit you. As you sit in your hospital bed you will not want to sit alone staring at the wall. During these times you want to feel others rallying around you. You will seek comfort in those you love. This isn’t exactly easy to do if you travel to places where others can’t easily visit you.

Flying When You Are Ill

A lot of people love traveling, but they don’t exactly love sitting in an airport or flying on an airplane. Now imagine you aren’t feeling well when you board that plane and sit in a very tight seat on your way to surgery. Think about the times you’ve caught a flight with a cold or the flu. It’s not fun. Now picture yourself on a long flight out of the country with a serious injury or illness?

If that doesn’t sound bad enough, what if your doctor won’t permit you to fly. Surgeries, injuries, heart attacks or strokes are just some of the reasons you shouldn’t travel by air.

What happens to the plan for medical tourism when you can’t get out of the country?

The Language Barrier

Medicine is complex and many things can go wrong in the human body. Unfortunately, doctors don’t always speak in a way that is easy to understand. A lot of times they discuss matters as though their patients and patient’s families are also doctors.

It’s difficult enough to gather the facts, understand the implications of proposed treatment plans and ask questions when we were speaking the very same language. During a stressful time I would not want to add the complexity of language barriers.

Final Thoughts

I certainly understand the desire to reduce costs associated with medical care, but if I get sick I won’t rely on medical tourism. I’ve had enough experiences in life to know that bad things can quickly get worse. The last thing I want to do in that situation is worry about flying overseas. In fact, I’d rather work an extra few years than rely on medical tourism.

2 thoughts on “Is Medical Tourism an Unrealistic Idea”

  1. I’m not well-informed on subject, and I love your blog, but I feel like this article misses the purpose of medical tourism. My understanding is that it’s not meant for emergencies. It’s not meant to be used to replace all health care in the U.S. Instead, it’s intended to handle non-urgent and/or elective procedures.

    One common example I hear is major dental work. This is something you can plan for. It’s not a rush. Another possible use would be my girlfriend’s recent knee surgery. She’s had a bum knee for twenty years. She wanted it fixed. It cost her a fortune here at home. If we were up on medical tourism, we might have been able to leverage a trip to Ecuador (or some other place).

    Anyhow, I just felt like this piece was making objections to medical tourism based on things it’s not meant to actually be used for.

    • Hi J.D.,

      Thanks for your comment. First, let me say I am a HUGE fan of yours and of Get Rich Slowly. I stumbled upon your blog in 2006. At the time your honesty, openness and vulnerability were unmatched in the personal finance space. I followed you to Money Boss, but I am so happy that you have returned to Get Rich Slowly. It just feels right for me as a decade-plus-long reader.

      As for your question about this post. I agree that medical tourism is not meant to address emergency situations. My point, perhaps not clearly stated, is that the majority of medical issues arise as emergencies that cannot delay treatment. 145 million emergency room visits occurred just last year. Those cases are much more common than elective surgeries mentioned in FIRE forums.

      In the FIRE community a lot of people reference medical tourism as a means to save money, but issues like knee replacements are a blip on the radar of medical issues one might encounter throughout a lifetime. Unless people plan to permanently move to another country, (which wouldn’t be medical tourism), I think this cost saving solution is an unrealistic idea.

      Also, while knee surgery is relatively straight forward, other issues like cancer treatments and organ transplant are unbelievably complex and add additional issues like the ones stated in this post above.

      If you’ve never been sick it’s easy to believe you will hop on a plane for medical treatment. In reality I think most of us get sick in ways that medical tourism simply isn’t an option.

      And honestly even if it is an option I think it’s easy to say what you might do in the hypothetical and much more difficult to do in real life when your life is on the line.

      Thanks again for your comment. I must admit I think of you like a rockstar in the personal finance community and my heart might just have skipped a beat when I saw your comment on my blog.


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