Medical Tourism 101: Tips for Saving on Medical Care Overseas

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Woman with her doctor
Monkey Business Images /

Editor's Note: This story originally appeared on Live and Invest Overseas.

You want something taken out of your thighs, not your bank balance. You want a new set of choppers, not to become a Billy Bob look-alike. You are thinking tastefully sized, they are thinking super-sized.

How do you find the right doctor for the job?

Finding the right doctor in the United States can be hard. One of the obvious deciding factors is cost. However, this in turn means looking abroad, where things are cheaper …

The plot suddenly thickens! You are now trying to find the right doctor outside the United States. There is a whole world of contending doctors from which to choose, not just your local five.

All in all, you are about to trust somebody with your life—research and pick that person well. Choose your doctor wisely and you should have nothing to fear.

What should you be on the lookout for? Read on …

A Sneaky ‘Before Means Antes, After Means Después’ Scribbled on Their Hand Doesn’t Bode Well

Doctor with patient
Syda Productions /

First, they need to speak English. Whipping out a dictionary and mistranslating “breast augmentation” to mean “pan-fried chicken breast” will not start the ball rolling the way you had hoped.

On a serious note, it is worth remembering that there are two types of English speakers. There is the “I speak English, I did a one-month language exchange in Canada” type.

Alternatively, there is the “I speak English, I lived in the States for many years and understand subtle nuances” type.

Needless to say, you’ll score a home run with the second. Test out language skills ideally in person or at least over the telephone. Do not judge a book, or should I say website, by its cover.

That said, it may be worth your own peace of mind to have a small vocab cheat sheet yourself—remember, even if the doctor speaks English, the receptionist or nurse may not.

Knowing a few relevant words will take some stress and confusion out of an already emotional situation.

Get the Legal — This Isn’t the Home of the Eagle

Female patient and doctor in the hospital
wavebreakmedia /

You need to look at the possible legal concerns.

In comparison to some countries, the United States has many facilities to protect patients.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 provides data privacy regarding medical information being passed to third parties.

In a nutshell, your boss is not able to find out if you are undergoing IVF treatment.

The Act prevents U.S. doctors and clinics from passing on information. It does not prevent people requesting the information. Your boss or any official body could ask your doctor in Vietnam for information, and your doctor may be free to supply it.

Have a Tight Contract

Happy senior patient with a doctor
Monkey Business Images /

This is where tight contracts come in handy. Make sure your contract includes data protection. Additionally, tort (or, as we non-legals call it, “suing somebody for their mistake”) is seen differently abroad.

For us, it may mean that we sue for their stupidity and/or negligence. For them, it may mean, “you let me do that to you — I am not accepting liability for your stupidity.”

A good first standard to meet is to make sure your health facility is JCI-accredited. The World Association for Medical Law is also a reliable source of information for quality checks.

The American Society of Plastic Surgeons quite rightly reminds us that there are no U.S. laws that protect U.S. citizens seeking care overseas. Other countries will have their own laws that may protect you, but you need to check what they are.

Make sure you read the fine print and know your rights in the country you seek care in — you may be American, but you’re not in America.

Don’t Be Afraid To Question the Man Behind the Curtain

Doctor talking to a patient in the hospital
Monkey Business Images /

You can and should ask questions. Different countries have different cultures, and this can have an impact on your care and their perception of you as a patient.

In many countries, doctors are highly revered members of society, under no circumstances to be questioned. Science is reserved for a selected few; attempts to understand it should not be made by mere mortals.

What does this mean?

It means that local patients seldom question and information is seldom volunteered.

Understand Cultural Differences

Doctor discussing test results with a patient
Lordn /

I have personal experience of this cultural difference.

When curious from a biology point of view, I asked my private doctor in Mexico a question about giving birth. He smiled and literally replied, “Don’t you worry your little head with that. You don’t need to know these things.”

He then followed by asking me, “So on which date would you like to give birth? Mexico is playing Costa Rica next month, it may be nice to avoid that Saturday for the sake of your husband and father-in-law.”

My science question had clearly been interpreted as the cry of a wimp for a planned, pain-free cesarean. This was not intended to be offensive. It was simply a Mexican doctor trying to take a typically pragmatic approach to the biggest moment of my life.

It is not a question of being right or wrong. It is a cultural difference. In order for you to have a successful relationship with your doctor, these differences must be ironed out or one of you must tolerate the other and accept the consequences.

Ask questions as if you were in the United States. Don’t hold back. And if you feel they are beating about the bush, ask again. It will be too late after you’ve been knocked out for the count.

Post-Procedure Care

older disabled in wheelchair with pill
Chatchawal Phumkaew /

Be just as diligent in planning your recovery.

You may spend so much time anticipating the procedure that post-procedure care slips your mind. This factor needs to be taken into consideration not only from a financial but also from a time point of view.

Have you budgeted for return tickets to the country where you had the procedure? Do you need to return for post-op checkups or is there an affiliate back home who can take care of it?

If not, can you get time off work to go abroad again? Will anybody go with you for the post-op checkups? If so, all these questions apply to them too.

How long do you need to recover from jet lag? Is post-procedure care included in the price? Is the post-procedure medicine they recommend available back home, and can you afford it?

Plan ahead. Get an answer for each of these questions.

Remember That You’re a Patient First, a Tourist Second

Nurse with patient
michaeljung /

Last but not least, keep your priorities in order.

This is medical tourism, not a vacation with an operation thrown in.

Don’t let yourself get distracted by amazing surfing, world-class yoga retreats, glorious swimming pools, local wine tasting (many medicines aren’t compatible with drinking alcohol), or encaptivating ruins.

Laser treatments may not leave open wounds but, nonetheless, they aren’t bikini friendly. Dental work may give you a headache or two, conducive for ice cream but not spicy tacos and pyramid hopping in the sun.

In other words, don’t try to double it up as a true vacation; the most you should do is enjoy the beautiful and exotic setting while getting lots of needed R&R.

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