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Medical tourism offers healthy savings

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The idea of shopping around to save money on quality health care is a new concept for many people. Throw in travel expenses and how do you know if you're making a smart financial choice?

 "We use the '$6,000 Rule' to help clients decide if traveling overseas is a good idea. If it costs $6,000 or more to have the procedure done in the U.S., the client will probably save money by having it done overseas," says Marsek.

First steps
Whether you need eye surgery or an angioplasty, there are two paths to take: You can research options on your own, or you can go through an agency or gateway service.

Regardless of which path you choose, if you're looking for a cosmetic surgeon or dentist, you may want to have some consultations in the United States and get some price quotes.

For something like a hip replacement, first get a diagnosis from your doctor in America. It's possible to get a diagnosis once you reach your destination, but it may not work out.

"We inform our clients that if they have a work-up done overseas -- and we'll only send them if they're fit for flight -- they must be willing to be turned down for surgery by the overseas surgeon and return home," says Stephanie Sulger, R.N., MS, CIPC (certified in international patient care), founder of Medical Tours International, a gateway service, based in Cold Spring, N.Y.

Make sure you discuss all aspects of your planned treatment with your health insurer, if you have one. Don't assume your policy will cover it. Know exactly what overseas medical bills and situations are included in your primary health coverage. Before you depart, read your policy and call your health insurer for specifics on any coverage abroad. This can vary from country to country, so it's wise to research each trip individually.

You might find yourself pleasantly surprised or get a nasty shock when you do your homework.

Going solo
You can save money by making all the arrangements yourself on the Internet, where you can conduct an exhaustive amount of research. But remember, you'll be responsible for finding your surgeon and researching the hospital, and also for arranging transportation and after-surgery care. Getting a referral for a doctor or dentist by someone you know can be a good start.

Chuck Hoar, vice president of sales and marketing for United Plastics Group, decided to get his teeth whitened, but he didn't want to pay the high fees near his home in Mansfield, Mass. Hoar travels frequently to Mexico on business, so when a colleague there mentioned that his wife was a dentist, Hoar decided to get his teeth whitened during a business trip.

"I might have been a little reluctant to try this if I hadn't had a personal connection," says Hoar. "But she had all the latest equipment and it felt like going to a dentist in the U.S. She did a great job on my teeth."

Even with personal recommendations, you need to check out your dentist's or surgeon's credentials.

"Do your research," Schult says. "When I went to Costa Rica for my dental work, I knew more about my dentist than I ever did about any of my American doctors. You should correspond with them. And I recommend that you ask to speak with some of their patients."

Next: " ... you're not going to be sipping Margaritas on the beach."
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