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Consider The Medical Tourist

Planning to get some new crowns or have periodontal work done when you visit the family in the Philippines next summer?  Going to Dubai for a brow lift, followed up by some amazing shopping?  Having your heart surgery taken care of back home in Germany?  Welcome to the world of medical tourism!

Did you know that it’s estimated that some 750,000 US citizens go abroad for medical care of some sort each year?  If you are planning to join the ranks, there are some things to keep in mind. The most common procedures undergone during these ‘medical vacations‘ appear to be cosmetic enhancements, dentistry and – sort of oddly – heart surgery.   Our CDC reports that many of these medical tourists travel for care because the treatment is that much cheaper in another country.  In many cases, too, a large number of these medical tourists are immigrants to the US, going back to their home countries for a health service.

There are risks involved in medical tourism, of course.  The specifics depend on the nature of the procedures performed and the part of the world visited, but some basic issues are identified as follows:

  • Doctors may reuse needles between patients or allow other unsafe injection practices, which can transmit HIV, hepatitis or other  diseases.
  • Communication may be a real challenge.  Undergoing procedures and receiving care at a clinic or medical facility where you do not speak the language fluently greatly increases the chance that miscommunications and misunderstandings will take place regarding your care and treatment.
  • Medication may be counterfeit or of poor quality in some countries.
  • Keep in mind that antibiotic resistance is a global problem.  Resistant bacteria may be more common in other countries than in the US.
  • The blood supply in some countries primarily comes from paid donors.  It may not be screened, putting patients at risk of HIV and other infections spread through blood.
  • Flying shortly after surgery increases the risk for blood clots.

Still want to go ahead with that surgery?

Here are some things you can do to minimize the risk and get the results you’re after:

  • If you are set on traveling outside the country for medical care, see a travel medicine practitioner at least 4-6 weeks prior to departing.  Go over the basics for healthy travel, then discuss the specific risks related to the procedure and traveling before and after that procedure.
  • Check, check and re-check the qualifications of the providers who will be performing the procedure and the credentials of the facility where the work will be done.  The Joint Commission International (US-based) certifies health care facilities according to specific standards.  Click here: jointcommission.org. for more information.
  • You will need to have a written agreement in place with the health care facility or the group organizing the trip before any work is done.  This agreement should clearly define and describe what treatments, supplies and care are covered by the costs of the trip.
  • Determine what legal actions you can take should anything go wrong with the procedure.
  • You don’t speak the local language?  Before you get there, find out how you will be communicating with the doctors, nurses and aides, and any others involved with your treatment and care.
  • Get copies of your medical records that include lab work and other studies done related to the conditions for which you are seeking care and any allergies you might have.
  • Prepare a list of all the medications you take, including their brand names, their generic names, manufacturers and dosages.  And bring copies of all your prescriptions.
  • Try to arrange follow-up care with your local health care provider before you leave.
  • Get copies of all your medical records before you return home.
  • If you are planning to add vacation-type activities to this trip, such as taking long tours, swimming, sunbathing or drinking alcohol, find out if such activities are permitted after the procedure.

Bon voyage!

From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, February 2012.

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