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Medical tourism offers healthy savings

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Unless you're looking for a cosmetic surgeon, Schult recommends choosing the hospital first and then picking the surgeon. The hospital should be accredited by the U.S.-based Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO). The JCAHO sets health care standards in America, but hospitals in other countries are getting this accreditation to appeal to U.S. patients who want reassurance that the hospital has high standards.

Going through an agency
The growth in medical tourism has spawned agencies that help you choose a surgeon or dentist. Depending on the agency, they offer services such as handling all of your travel details, including airline reservations and ground transportation, once you reach your destination. They also handle accommodations for your recovery period and for your hotel stay -- often at five-star hotels at amazingly low rates. 

"Part of what we've done is standardize and formalize the process so the individual is taken care of from start to finish," says Erickson.

Worried about culture shock? Many agencies also provide a service to help clients navigate the unfamiliar culture. GlobalChoice Healthcare provides a concierge service. MedRetreat offers a similar service. Medical Tourist Alert provides a guide to medical tourism companies, countries and services worldwide

A vacation that isn't
Beware the hard sell that emphasizes destination over the quality of care. Unless you're getting minor cosmetic dental work, you're not going to be sipping Margaritas on the beach.

"This is medical tourism, not a vacation," Sulger says. "It's easy to see a Web site with palm trees and think you're going to paradise. You don't go swimming after a tummy tuck. We help our clients get a clear picture of what they're doing and what to expect."

If you're working with an agency that talks about the beach more than the qualifications of your doctor, you might think about changing agencies.

"Many patients are on pain medication or even throwing up after surgery," says Dr. John Corey, a board-certified aesthetic surgeon who practices in Scottsdale, Ariz. "As their doctor, you don't want them to go anywhere. With a tummy tuck, for instance, a patient may be bent over for five days."

If you'd like to take advantage of things to do in the area, arrive a few days before your surgery to enjoy the "vacation" part of your trip.

You'll also want to keep your schedule free for a few days after your departure date. If your surgeon says you're not ready to travel on your scheduled departure time, you simply can't leave. 

Problems happen here in the United States and they can happen overseas.

"If you go to India and your knee replacement doesn't work -- and sometimes it won't -- you can go back to India and get it redone or stay here in the U.S," says Erickson. "If you need to sue, you can do that in India. It's the same thing in the U.S.; you're on your own in the U.S. too."

In most countries, litigation is a possibility but malpractice laws vary. Most surgeons will work with you if you're not satisfied. It's in the surgeon's best interest to make you happy, says Marsek.

"Follow-ups can sometimes be difficult," warns Corey. Not all U.S. doctors are going to want to take on a patient who had surgery in another country. And although the average stay, according to Marsek, is 17 days, you're likely to need a few follow-up appointments after you return.

Next: "The future of medical tourism"
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