Medical tourism gains steam among Americans

Medical tourism is gaining popularity among Americans, but the practice may not be in their best interests.

About one million Americans will seek medical treatment elsewhere this year, compared to about 750,000 last year, according to AARP Magazine. They most commonly travel for dental procedures, followed closely by coronary bypasses and bariatric operations, with cosmetic surgery coming in third and orthopedic procedures such as knee or hip replacements in fourth place.

The amount of American medical tourists will likely increase 25 to 35 percent per year, with particular emphasis on procedures not traditionally covered by employer insurance such as dental or cosmetic work, the consumer advisory group Patients Beyond Borders told Kiplinger.

"The international medical marketplace is about to take off," Marty Makary, M.D., of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, told AARP. "We're living in the era of the high deductible--$10,000 in the bronze family plan under the new health law. People are paying more and looking to cut costs."

Companies such as Wal-Mart and Lowe's will cover the cost of employee trips to locations within the U.S. that charge fixed fees, FierceHealthcare previously reported.

Canada is the most popular destination among Americans, according to Medical Tourism Magazine, scoring highest for both environment and cost. "The rankings serve as a transparent means for private healthcare providers in Canada currently reviewing what steps should or should not be considered when examining avenues to increase revenue and expand international access to care," Renee-Marie Stephano, president of the Medical Tourism Association, told the magazine.

Medical tourism is a two-way street, however; Florida has invested $5 million to promote the state as a destination for overseas visitors seeking treatment, according to the South Florida Business Journal. To attract that kind of business, providers must emphasize innovation, such as the University of Michigan's 3D organ printing initiatives, Stephano told the publication. And in 2003, Filipino brothers Carl and Clarence Aguirre were among the first conjoined twins to be successfully separated over a 10-month period at New York's Children's Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center, according to Medical Tourism.

However, a 2013 study indicated that many selling points used for medical tourism, such as its potential for economic stimulus, have largely been promoted by organizations with a financial stake and are not based on hard data. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also warned of potential hazards of the practice, such as miscommunications or different screening protocols for blood donors.

To learn more:
- here's the AARP article
- read the Kiplinger article
- here's the first Medical Tourism article
- read the second Medical Tourism article
- check out the Business Journal article
- here's the CDC's fact sheet

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