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What are the risks of medical tourism?

Red sign with white "USE AT OWN RISK" writting on it, fixed to a wooden fence.

There is no denying that medical tourism is a growing industry. Millions of people across the globe travel outside their home countries to receive medical care. Whether on Social Media or the broader internet, thousands of hospitals and facilitators are courting patients with their "best hospital for XYZ" advertisements.

In such an environment and anticipation of the industry's future growth, it is critical to inform patients about the risks associated with medical tourism and treatment abroad.


Here are 4 common risks of medical tourism


1. Quality of Care in medical tourism

There are two sides to quality of care. The first is rather obvious: How can patients assess the quality of a foreign healthcare provider (or even a domestic one) without an in-depth understanding of healthcare and the commonly used Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)?

And even if patients knew how to judge the information if it were provided in the first place - how can they be sure that it is truthful?

Of course, one could look toward accreditation, but independently of whether that is something to go by, most hospitals international patients visit are not accredited by any recognised international institution.


2. Travelling increases the risk of infection

When travelling for healthcare services, patients are exposed to pathogens different from what they would have usually been exposed to. Other countries will have different bacteria and viruses to be vigilant about.

Also, the risk of hospital infection, especially with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, might be higher in other countries due to potentially lesser hospital hygiene practices. Regulatory standards for infection control differ widely between jurisdictions, making it hard to assess in advance.


3. Continuity of Care is still a problem in medical travel

Even if a suitable and qualified healthcare provider has been found and treatment has been conducted successfully, follow-up care is required in most instances. Patients regularly run into many issues concerning the continuation of their treatment. First, who will cover the cost, assuming the patient returns to the home country and requires post-operative care? Are domestic insurance programs going to cover the cost for treatment started abroad? Will domestic providers feel comfortable working on a case that has been, up to this point, treated in a way that differs from their usual practice? Even if procedures of an invasive nature are not required, there are potential tripfalls regarding medication. Who guarantees that the prescribed drug is available in the patient's country of residence? How will the patient receive it there if a prescription is required? The problems go beyond that, but by that point already, it should be clear that Continuity of Care is not addressed sufficiently in medical tourism.


4. Cost coverage remains problematic

Cost estimates in medical tourism are usually calculated only with limited recognition of potential incidentals that arise from a broader treatment spectrum required than initially assumed. What happens when a patient needs more care than was earlier considered is unclear. In some jurisdictions, it is not sure that a hospital will continue to provide care while cost coverage has not been settled. Further, there are many cases in which patients returned from medical tourism activities, and insurance companies have refused to cover the bill for the complications that arise as a consequence of their trip.


How to deal with the risks medical tourism presents?

It is safe to say that with medical tourism, not everything is as great as it is often advertised. Patients are navigating these risks with limited visibility and without support; thus, it is vital to be aware of them in the first place and use every tool at their disposal to mitigate them. One way is to loop in a domestic healthcare provider who conducts sanity checks on the information provided by the foreign hospital. Our former head of consulting, Christian El-Khouri, has given an interview to a local San Diego (United States) Magazine with a couple of recommendations for patients that will be linked here soon.


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