CDC Yellow Book 2024Health Care Abroad
Medical tourism is the term commonly used to describe international travel for the purpose of receiving medical care. Medical tourists pursue medical care abroad for a variety of reasons, including decreased cost, recommendations from friends or family, the opportunity to combine medical care with a vacation destination, a preference to receive care from a culturally similar provider, or a desire to receive a procedure or therapy not available in their country of residence.
Medical tourism is a worldwide, multibillion-dollar market that continues to grow with the rising globalization of health care. Surveillance data indicate that millions of US residents travel internationally for medical care each year. Medical tourism destinations for US residents include Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Germany, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Singapore, and Thailand. Categories of procedures that US medical tourists pursue include cancer treatment, dental care, fertility treatments, organ and tissue transplantation, and various forms of surgery, including bariatric, cosmetic, and non-cosmetic (e.g., orthopedic).
Most medical tourists pay for their care at time of service and often rely on private companies or medical concierge services to identify foreign health care facilities. Some US health insurance companies and large employers have alliances with health care facilities outside the United States to control costs.
Categories of Medical Tourism
Cosmetic tourism, or travel abroad for aesthetic surgery, has become increasingly popular. The American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS) reports that most cosmetic surgery patients are women 40–54 years old. The most common procedures sought by cosmetic tourists include abdominoplasty, breast augmentation, eyelid surgery, liposuction, and rhinoplasty. Popular destinations often are marketed to prospective medical tourists as low cost, all-inclusive cosmetic surgery vacations for elective procedures not typically covered by insurance. Complications, including infections and surgical revisions for unsatisfactory results, can compound initial costs.
Non-Cosmetic Medical Tourism
Oncology, or cancer treatment, tourism often is pursued by people looking for alternative treatment options, better access to care, second opinions, or a combination of these. Oncology tourists are a vulnerable patient population because the fear caused by a cancer diagnosis can lead them to try potentially risky treatments or procedures. Often, the treatments or procedures used abroad have no established benefit, placing the oncology tourist at risk for harm due to complications (e.g., bleeding, infection) or by forgoing or delaying approved therapies in the United States.
Dental care is the most common form of medical tourism among US residents, in part due to the rising cost of dental care in the United States; a substantial proportion of people in the United States do not have dental insurance or are underinsured. Dentists in destination countries might not be subject to the same licensure oversight as their US counterparts, however. In addition, practitioners abroad might not adhere to standard infection-control practices used in the United States, placing dental tourists at a potential risk for infection due to bloodborne or waterborne pathogens.
Fertility tourists are people who seek reproductive treatments in another country. Some do so to avoid associated barriers in their home country, including high costs, long waiting lists, and restrictive policies. Others believe they will receive higher quality care abroad. People traveling to other countries for fertility treatments often are in search of assisted reproductive technologies (e.g., artificial insemination by a donor, in vitro fertilization). Fertility tourists should be aware, however, that practices can vary in their level of clinical expertise, hygiene, and technique.
The practice of a physician facilitating a patient’s desire to end their own life by providing either the information or the means (e.g., medications) for suicide is illegal in most countries. Some people consider physician-assisted suicide (PAS) tourism, also known as suicide travel or suicide tourism, as a possible option. Most PAS tourists have been diagnosed with a terminal illness or suffer from painful or debilitating medical conditions. PAS is legal in Belgium, Canada, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and New Zealand, making these the destinations selected by PAS travelers.
Rehab Tourism for Substance Use Disorders
Rehab tourism involves travel to another country for substance use disorder treatment and rehabilitation care. Travelers exploring this option might be seeking a greater range of treatment options at less expense than what is available domestically (see Sec. 3, Ch. 5, Substance Use & Substance Use Disorders, and Box 3-10 for pros and cons of rehab tourism).
Transplant tourism refers to travel for receiving an organ, tissue, or stem cell transplant from an unrelated human donor. The practice can be motivated by reduced cost abroad or an effort to reduce the waiting time for organs. Xenotransplantation refers to receiving other biomaterial (e.g., cells, tissues) from nonhuman species, and xenotransplantation regulations vary from country to country. Many procedures involving injection of human or nonhuman cells have no scientific evidence to support a therapeutic benefit, and adverse events have been reported.
Depending on the location, organ or tissue donors might not be screened as thoroughly as they are in the United States; furthermore, organs and other tissues might be obtained using unethical means. In 2009, the World Health Organization released the revised Guiding Principles on Human Cell, Tissue, and Organ Transplantation, emphasizing that cells, tissues, and organs should be donated freely, in the absence of any form of financial incentive.
Studies have shown that transplant tourists can be at risk of receiving care that varies from practice standards in the United States. For instance, patients might receive fewer immunosuppressive drugs, increasing their risk for rejection, or they might not receive antimicrobial prophylaxis, increasing their risk for infection. Traveling after a procedure poses an additional risk for infection in someone who is immunocompromised.
The Pretravel Consultation
Ideally, medical tourists will consult a travel medicine specialist for travel advice tailored to their specific health needs 4–6 weeks before travel. During the pretravel consultation, make certain travelers are up to date on all routine vaccinations, that they receive additional vaccines based on destination, and especially encourage hepatitis B virus immunization for unvaccinated travelers (see Sec. 2, Ch. 3, Vaccination & Immunoprophylaxis & General Principles, and Sec. 5, Part 2, Ch. 8, Hepatitis B). Counsel medical tourists that participating in typical vacation activities (e.g., consuming alcohol, participating in strenuous activity or exercise, sunbathing, swimming, taking long tours) during the postoperative period can delay or impede healing.
Advise medical tourists to also meet with their primary care provider to discuss their plan to seek medical care outside the United States, to address any concerns they or their provider might have, to ensure current medical conditions are well controlled, and to ensure they have a sufficient supply of all regular medications to last the duration of their trip. In addition, medical tourists should be aware of instances in which US medical professionals have elected not to treat medical tourists presenting with complications resulting from recent surgery, treatment, or procedures received abroad. Thus, encourage medical tourists to work with their primary care provider to identify physicians in their home communities who are willing and available to provide follow-up or emergency care upon their return.
Remind medical tourists to request copies of their overseas medical records in English and to provide this information to any health care providers they see subsequently for follow-up. Encourage medical tourists to disclose their entire travel history, medical history, and information about all surgeries or medical treatments received during their trip.
Risks & Complications
All medical and surgical procedures carry some risk, and complications can occur regardless of where treatment is received. Advise medical tourists not to delay seeking medical care if they suspect any complication during travel or after returning home. Obtaining immediate care can lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment and a better outcome.
Among medical tourists, the most common complications are infection related. Inadequate infection-control practices place people at increased risk for bloodborne infections, including hepatitis B, hepatitis C, and HIV; bloodstream infections; donor-derived infections; and wound infections. Moreover, the risk of acquiring antibiotic-resistant infections might be greater in certain countries or regions; some highly resistant bacterial (e.g., carbapenem-resistant Enterobacterales [CRE]) and fungal (e.g., Candida auris) pathogens appear to be more common in some countries where US residents travel for medical tourism (see Sec. 11, Ch. 5, Antimicrobial Resistance).
Several infectious disease outbreaks have been documented among medical tourists, including CRE infections in patients undergoing invasive medical procedures in Mexico, surgical site infections caused by nontuberculous mycobacteria in patients who underwent cosmetic surgery in the Dominican Republic, and Q fever in patients who received fetal sheep cell injections in Germany.
Medical tourists have the same risks for noninfectious complications as patients receiving medical care in the United States. Noninfectious complications include blood clots, contour abnormalities after cosmetic surgery, and surgical wound dehiscence.
Traveling during the post-operative or post-procedure recovery period or when being treated for a medical condition could pose additional risks for patients. Air travel and surgery independently increase the risk for blood clots, including deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary emboli (see Sec. 8, Ch. 3, Deep Vein Thrombosis & Pulmonary Embolism). Travel after surgery further increases the risk of developing blood clots because travel can require medical tourists to remain seated for long periods while in a hypercoagulable state.
Commercial aircraft cabin pressures are roughly equivalent to the outside air pressure at 6,000–8,000 feet above sea level. Medical tourists should not fly for 10 days after chest or abdominal surgery to avoid risks associated with changes in atmospheric pressure. ASPS recommends that patients undergoing laser treatments or cosmetic procedures to the face, eyelids, or nose, wait 7–10 days after the procedure before flying. The Aerospace Medical Association published medical guidelines for air travel that provide useful information on the risks for travel with certain medical conditions.
Professional organizations have developed guidance, including template questions, that medical tourists can use when discussing what to expect with the facility providing the care, with the group facilitating the trip, and with their own domestic health care provider. For instance, the American Medical Association developed guiding principles on medical tourism for employers, insurance companies, and other entities that facilitate or incentivize medical care outside the United States (Box 6-07). The American College of Surgeons (ACS) issued a similar statement on medical and surgical tourism, with the additional recommendation that travelers obtain a complete set of medical records before returning home to ensure that details of their care are available to providers in the United States, which can facilitate continuity of care and proper follow-up, if needed.
Box 6-07 American Medical Association’s guiding principles on medical tourism1
- Employers, insurance companies, and other entities that facilitate or incentivize medical care outside the United States should adhere to the following principles:
- Receiving medical care outside the United States must be voluntary.
- Financial incentives to travel outside the United States for medical care should not inappropriately limit the diagnostic and therapeutic alternatives that are offered to patients or restrict treatment or referral options.
- Patients should only be referred for medical care to institutions that have been accredited by recognized international accrediting bodies (e.g., the Joint Commission International or the International Society for Quality in Health Care).
- Prior to travel, local follow-up care should be coordinated, and financing should be arranged to ensure continuity of care when patients return from medical care outside the United States.
- Coverage for travel outside the United States for medical care should include the costs of necessary follow-up care upon return to the United States.
- Patients should be informed of their rights and legal recourse before agreeing to travel outside the United States for medical care.
- Access to physician licensing and outcome data, as well as facility accreditation and outcomes data, should be arranged for patients seeking medical care outside the United States.
- The transfer of patient medical records to and from facilities outside the United States should be consistent with Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Action (HIPAA) guidelines.
- Patients choosing to travel outside the United States for medical care should be provided with information about the potential risks of combining surgical procedures with long flights and vacation activities.
1American Medical Association (AMA). New AMA Guidelines on Medical Tourism. Chicago: AMA; 2008.
Reviewing the Risks
Multiple resources are available for providers and medical tourists assessing medical tourism–related risks (see Table 6-02). When reviewing the risks associated with seeking health care abroad, encourage medical tourists to consider several factors besides the procedure; these include the destination, the facility or facilities where the procedure and recovery will take place, and the treating provider.
Make patients aware that medical tourism websites marketing directly to travelers might not include (or make available) comprehensive details on the accreditations, certifications, or qualifications of advertised facilities or providers. Local standards for facility accreditation and provider certification vary, and might not be the same as those in the United States; some facilities and providers abroad might lack accreditation or certification. In some locations, tracking patient outcome data or maintaining formal medical record privacy or security policies are not standard practices.
Medical tourists also should be aware that the drugs and medical products and devices used in other countries might not be subject to the same regulatory scrutiny and oversight as in the United States. In addition, some drugs could be counterfeit or otherwise ineffective because the medication expired, is contaminated, or was improperly stored (for more details, see the previous chapter in this section, . . . perspectives: Avoiding Poorly Regulated Medicines & Medical Products During Travel).
Table 6-02 Online medical tourism resources
|ORGANIZATION / SOURCE||RESOURCE|
Accreditation Association for Ambulatory Health Care
Aerospace Medical Association
Medical Guidelines for Airline Passengers (2002) [PDF]
The Aesthetic Society
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons
Bulletin (July 2007)
Bulletin (February 2008)
American College of Surgeons
American Medical Association
American Society of Plastic Surgeons
ASPS Cautions Plastic Surgery Patients to Approach Holiday Medical Tourism with Vigilance (November 2012)
Medical Tourism for Cosmetic Surgery High Risk of Complications, High Costs for Treatment (June 2017)
Plastic Surgery Abroad Can Lead to Severe Complications after Returning to the US (March 2018)
Medical Tourism Can Put Patients in Legal Limbo (September 2018)
International Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery
Joint Commission International
US Department of State
World Health Organization
Guiding principles on human cell, tissue and organ transplantation
ACS recommends that medical tourists use internationally accredited facilities and seek care from providers certified in their specialties through a process equivalent to that established by the member boards of the American Board of Medical Specialties. Advise medical tourists to do as much advance research as possible on the facility and health care provider they are considering using. Also, inform medical tourists that accreditation does not guarantee a good outcome.
Accrediting organizations (e.g., The Joint Commission International, Accreditation Association for Ambulatory Health Care) maintain listings of accredited facilities outside of the United States. Encourage prospective medical tourists to review these sources before committing to having a procedure or receiving medical care abroad.
ACS, ASPS, the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, and the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery all accredit physicians abroad. Medical tourists should check the credentials of health care providers with search tools provided by relevant professional organizations.
Travel Health Insurance
Before travel, medical tourists should check their domestic health insurance plan carefully to understand what services, if any, are covered outside the United States. Additionally, travelers might need to purchase supplemental medical insurance coverage, including medical evacuation insurance; this is particularly important for travelers going to remote destinations or places lacking medical facilities that meet the standards found in high-income countries (see Sec. 6, Ch. 1, Travel Insurance, Travel Health Insurance & Medical Evacuation Insurance). Medical tourists also should be aware that if complications develop, they might not have the same legal recourse as they would if they received their care in the United States.
Planning for Follow-Up Care
Medical tourists and their domestic physicians should plan for follow-up care. Patients and clinicians should establish what care will be provided abroad, and what the patient will need upon return. Medical tourists should make sure they understand what services are included as part of the cost for their procedures; some overseas facilities and providers charge substantial fees for follow-up care in addition to the base cost. Travelers also should know whether follow-up care is scheduled to occur at the same facility as the procedure.
Additional Guidance for US Health Care Providers
Health care facilities in the United States should have systems in place to assess patients at admission to determine whether they have received medical care in other countries. Clinicians should obtain an explicit travel history from patients, including any medical care received abroad. Patients who have had an overnight stay in a health care facility outside the United States within 6 months of presentation should be screened for CRE. Admission screening is available free of charge through the Antibiotic Resistance Laboratory Network.
Notify state and local public health as soon as medical tourism–associated infections are identified. Returning patients often present to hospitals close to their home, and communication with public health authorities can help facilitate outbreak recognition. Health care facilities should follow all disease reporting requirements for their jurisdiction. Health care facilities also should report suspected or confirmed cases of unusual antibiotic resistance (e.g., carbapenem-resistant organisms, C. auris) to public health authorities to facilitate testing and infection-control measures to prevent further transmission. In addition to notifying the state or local health department, contact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at email@example.com to report complications related to medical tourism.
The following authors contributed to the previous version of this chapter: Isaac Benowitz, Joanna Gaines
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