My wife and I have had doctor and dental visits in five different countries now. After some initial apprehensions, we have gotten pretty comfortable visiting foreign medical professionals. Not every country offers the same level of quality, but you might be surprised at the service you can get abroad for very little money.
In Canada, just getting a dentist to look in your mouth for a few minutes will likely cost you $60 or $70. In Thailand, that will get you two hours of a dental specialist’s time. Your home doctor will probably warn you of the dangers of venturing abroad for medical services, but are those criticisms valid?
Myth 1 – Western doctors are better.
I have visited lousy dentists and doctors in very developed countries and great ones in less advanced countries. Sure some countries should be avoided, but that doesn’t necessarily mean your country’s doctors are always superior. If you can afford private doctors in the top U.S. hospitals, you will likely get some of the best medical care in the world. If you are going to lessor known, public hospitals you will likely get a standard of care that is comparable to most other countries in the world. Higher medical profits and salaries do not necessarily translate into better service.
In Canada, dentists collude to set standardized prices. While that is illegal in most industries, these pricing practices are normal in the medical profession in Canada and are driving up costs at many times the rate of inflation.
Myth 2 -All doctors are they same.
There are great and less than great doctors and dentists in every country. Do your research, visit several professionals and get second opinions. You should do this in your home country as well. Doctors are human and they make mistakes. Find a doctor that takes time to explain everything and is pleasant to deal with. You will judge their quality more from their bed-side manners than their medical skills.
Myth 3 -Foreign medical professionals lack the training.
You can’t assume that foreigners have inferior training. For example, I find the holistic approach of Japanese chiropractors much better than their western counterparts. They have different philosophies that might actually be superior.
Increasingly, doctors and dentists in your home country are foreign trained and have immigrated. The fact that they are in your country doesn’t necessarily mean they are better or worse educated. Also, many of the doctors and dentists you find abroad have also been schooled in the US.
Myth 4 -Foreign dentists and hospitals lack the equipment.
In some of the less developed countries you are probably not going to find the expensive lobbies and waiting rooms of some of the private hospitals or dental clinics in the west. However, western technology is widely available. While I wouldn’t trust the technology in really backwards countries like Burma, North Korea or even India, most places that you would consider for medical tourism will have modern, high quality equipment. They couldn’t be offering the services you are looking for, if they didn’t have the tools to do it. Also, the fact that you find out about these medical services online, demonstrates a level of investment and professionalism that most lessor equipped facilities couldn’t afford.
Some countries even have superior facilities and equipment to what you would find at home. In Thailand, most dental offices have large comfortable lobbies, relaxing gardens and even offer pick up services in comfortable vans. I have never seen that level of service in other countries.
Myth 5 -Materials used are lower quality.
In terms of teeth crowns and fillings, there are a wide variety of materials to choose from, just as in Western countries. You can choose, and pay for the quality you want. Often you will pay similar prices as in your own country. The savings generally come from the labour, not from the products used. Again do your research and find out what products will be used. They can all be readily found online.
Hungary in particular is famous for its dental industry and has invented and manufactures some of the supplies your dentist will be using. Not everything was invented in the west.
Myth 6 -Foreign medicine is cheaper so it can’t be trusted.
Yes, medicine prices can be as little as 10% of what you pay at home, but that doesn’t mean it is inferior. In fact, a lot of that medicine is produced by the exact company that sells the same product in your home country. It is just sold at a lower cost to developing countries. Of course, don’t buy your pharmaceuticals on the street or over the Internet. If it is prescribed by a real physician, it will likely be safe. (As safe as any medicine can be.) As with every medicine, do some research and understand what you are taking. The insane side-effects listed on US pharmaceutical advertisements should be a good indication of what to expect with any medicine.
Myth 7 -Foreign dental assistants have less training.
This may be true, but in my experiences in Hungary, Mexico and Thailand, the assistants didn’t touch my mouth. They were there to assist only. In more developed countries, assistants have been trained to do more of the routine cleaning and basic work. In many lessor developed countries, the dentist still does all the work. I would much rather get my teach cleaned by a Mexican trained dentist, than a US trained dental assistant.
Foreign medical services are always cheaper.
This is not always true. Patients can be charged exorbitant bills, particularly for emergency services. Make sure you know exactly what you are paying for in advance and how much care will be needed in total. You don’t want surprises after the fact.
In emergencies or accidents, you don’t have the luxury of shopping around so there is a higher likelihood that you will be over-charged. This is why travel insurance is generally a good idea. However, make sure you choose an insurance provider that has a reputation of paying. A Thai nursing friend has said that several of the top US insurance companies are black-listed in major hospitals in Thailand because of their history of not paying claims. Medical insurance is a business. Those companies make money by paying out as little as possible. Again, it is your responsibility to find a reputable insurer.
Myth 8 -Foreign doctors and dentists don’t speak English.
Most medical professionals speak decent English now. English is the language of science and the Internet so more educated people around the world will tend to have decent English skills. If you are in doubt, just ask. I found a great dentist in Mexico, just by walking in off the street and asking if they spoke English. The answer was yes, so I booked an appointment.
In Thailand, one dentist I visited didn’t take time to explain clearly and I felt her broken English was part of the problem, so I apologized and said that I prefer a different dentist. It might have been somewhat rude, but it is my mouth and my decision.
Myth 9 – Travel costs will eat up most of the savings.
This may be true, but I look at it in a different way. The inexpensive medical services subsidize my travel. For example, in Canada it can cost $300 or more to get your teeth cleaned and polished. In Mexico, Thailand or even Japan, it can be as low as $30. That is a $270 savings. Last year, my wife and I went on an all inclusive resort vacation in Mexico for a week, with airfare included for about $700. By saving $270 on our teeth cleaning, the trip really only cost $430 each. That is a pretty good price for all our food, drinks, accommodations and travel expenses.
Our recent trip to Thailand for two months was entirely paid for by the money we saved in dental visits there. If you are looking at getting serious medical procedures done, the money you save will likely pay for your trip and you will have the opportunity to recover in an exotic location. Why not turn your medical issue into a family vacation?
How do you choose a great doctor or dentist?
I certainly don’t want to promote getting any cosmetic or elective surgery. Any surgery is still surgery and should be avoided if possible. If you really need some medical procedure start by researching online. You will find hospitals and dentists catering to foreigners all over the world.
When you find some prospective clinics or hospitals, search for review sites to see what others have said about that organization. Use your judgement with the reviews, sometimes people with minor grievances dominate the results. (“My teeth are too white” or “my first appointment was cancelled so I had to wait two weeks for another.”) Also, look out for planted reviews that sound exceedingly positive. Reviews can be faked, so a little bit of criticism is probably an indication of honest experiences.
The best place to get unbiased reviews is from city specific traveler and expat groups. Try to visit the country in advance of your treatment, connect with the local expat community and find out where everyone shares their information. You can often find these expats and forums through Twitter and Facebook. Connecting in person will give you much higher quality recommendations. In the Chiang Mai, Thailand Facebook group many people have offered suggestions on dentists, accommodations and a whole list of other products and services. Those types of recommendations are first hand and are likely to be the least biased.
Should you use a medical tourism broker?
Brokers, who will arrange everything, are becoming increasingly popular, but I haven’t gone this route. I am sure there are reputable brokers, but profits can often get in the way of making the best recommendations. I know of one Canadian service that goes and inspects clinics in Mexico for cleanliness and verifies the credentials of the dentists but I suspect that you would have to pay a substantial premium for this. If you are getting heart surgery or another serious operation, paying a few hundred dollars to a third party might make sense. For more routine services, like teeth cleaning, that much scrutiny is probably not needed.
As a US citizen, your only feasible option for health care may very well be overseas. For chronic conditions that require expensive pharmaceuticals, you can likely save a great deal of money by going to nearby countries like Mexico or Cuba. In countries with state sponsored health care, minor problems are often treated free of charge. My wife and I have been given free treatment in three different countries now.
Don’t Be Foolish.
You can potentially save a lot of money using overseas medical services and you might even get great vacation while you are healing, however surgeries and other serious medical services should not be taken lightly. Although it is rare, people die from cosmetic surgery. Are you willing to take that risk for an unnecessary procedure?