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Medical tourism offers healthy savings

If you need cosmetic dental work or want a tummy tuck, but can't afford the cost, maybe you should consider a foreign vacation -- a medical vacation.

Traveling overseas to combine dental or medical services with an exotic holiday -- known as medical tourism -- is projected to become a $40 billion-a-year industry by 2010.

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If you think only the wealthy can afford a face-lift in Brazil or a total knee replacement in Thailand, think again: An estimated 500,000 Americans from all walks of life are traveling to exotic locales every year to save money on medical procedures. 

The typical medical tourist is a female between the ages of 45 and 70, but men also travel for treatment. Why go overseas? Most often people choose medical tourism because they want an elective procedure like cosmetic surgery that's expensive and isn't covered by their insurance. Or maybe they're "under covered" by their insurance, perhaps due to a pre-existing condition or a policy that requires large out-of-pocket expenses.

Sometimes people don't have insurance at all and the cost of their elective procedure stateside is prohibitive. Some 46.6 million Americans had no health insurance last year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"Cosmetic procedures make up about 80 percent of our business," says Patrick Marsek, managing director of MedRetreat, a medical tourism agency based in Vernon Hills, Ill.

But other procedures are gaining in popularity. Americans are traveling for knee or hip replacements, spinal fusion, LASIK (Laser Assisted in Situ Keratomileusis) eye surgery, hernia operations, cardiac surgery, joint arthroscopy, treatment for urinary incontinence and more.

Countries and specialties
This map shows only a partial list of countries and their recognized specialties. But you can often find qualified surgeons in various specialties in many of the countries listed.

Countries and specialties

How much can you save?
Expect to pay from 30 percent to 80 percent of the U.S. cost, depending on the procedure and the destination. According to Jeff Schult, author of "Beauty From Afar," a face-lift in the United States costs $7,000 to $10,000. In Brazil or Costa Rica? A face-lift costs $2,500 to $3,500.

"The amount of money you save is almost frightening," says Schult, who says he had extensive dental work done in Costa Rica at a fraction of what it would have cost in the United States.

"One of our case studies is a 53-year-old male who has run his own business," says Ken Erickson, founder and CEO of GlobalChoice Healthcare, headquartered in Albuquerque, N.M. "He's uninsured and now needs a knee replacement. In most cases, he won't even be able to get a price quote from a hospital. He can call us and we know right away what the price is for that procedure."

"A travel package to India for this procedure is about $13,000. To Singapore, about $18,000. In the United States, the price is around $30,000," Erickson says. "He runs his own business, he's a smart guy and so he's shopping around."
 
 
Next: "How do you know if you're making a smart financial choice?"
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