High US Prices Make Medical Tourism A Booming Business


American medical costs regularly make headlines for being sky-high, despite healthcare outcomes no better – and often worse – than those of comparable nations, and because these costs regularly drive Americans into debt. That’s why it should come as no surprise that a growing number of US citizens are turning to medical tourism and other international arrangements to meet their healthcare needs. Whether they’re forced to travel abroad for surgery or import drugs that are unaffordable here, traditional systems cannot meet Americans’ needs any longer.

The High Price Of Modern Medicine

One key reason that American medical care is so expensive is that pharmaceutical companies hold an exclusive patent on new medications for twenty years and they regularly update drugs to extend their control. That means that there aren’t generic versions available for many drugs, pushing prices up.

Additionally, American drug manufacturers are allowed to set their own drug prices – pricing isn’t regulated by the government – so they drive prices higher to their own benefit, and in many cases, insurance companies refuse to cover new, high priced drugs. All of these practices explain why Americans spend more on prescription drugs than patients in other countries. We aren’t buying more; our drugs are just more expensive.

In order to get appropriate treatment without paying high, US prices, some Americans choose to use a Canadian pharmacy offering the same medications, both name-brand and generic, at lower prices. This is permitted under the FDA’s guidelines, “Coverage of Personal Importations,” which states that individuals can import a 90-day supply of medication for personal use as long as the recipient won’t be promoting or selling it, can affirm in writing that it is for individual use, and that the medication doesn’t represent an unreasonable risk. Since the Canadian government controls drug prices as part of universal healthcare, these drugs are generally less expensive than they would be in the United States.

Traveling For Treatment

In addition to importing drugs for personal use, many Americans are traveling abroad for medical care, a practice known as medical tourism. But is it really less expensive to receive treatment abroad, especially once you account for travel costs? The answer is a resounding yes. In fact, the benefits are so clear that in Utah, one insurance company is encouraging patients to travel to Mexico, particularly to get prescription drugs. Even without this encouragement, though – the insurance company will send a private car and transport patients to acquire drugs – many Americans are traveling to Mexico for medical care.

A few types of medical treatment that Americans frequently travel for are dental care, which is often not covered by US insurance companies, as well as bariatric surgery, stem cell treatments, and fertility treatments. Dental care is about 60% cheaper in Mexico, while bariatric surgery is about 70% cheaper. Americans also commonly travel to Thailand for plastic surgery, Germany for specialized cancer treatments, and Greece is currently trying to boost its status as a destination for IVF, orthopedic surgery, and plastic surgery.

Though some governmental bodies, such as CMS, are trying to reduce medical costs in the United States, it will take system-wide reform to make prices comparable with those abroad. For the time being, then, Americans will continue to turn to international destinations and services for the care they need. This shouldn’t be necessary in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.