When Bridget Snell found out she had multiple sclerosis, she knew she would put up a fight. The 45 year-old mother of two, who lives in Duxbury, Mass., researched options to slow the progress of the disease. The methods she had been trying were invasive, often with side effects of their own.
An estimated 2.2 million Americans will travel abroad for medical care in 2020.
Then she stumbled upon autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (AHSCT), an experimental and controversial procedure that uses the patient's own stem cells to try to halt the progress of the disease. The FDA has not approved this procedure and last year issued a warning about unapproved stem cell therapies.
Despite the lack of established science, Snell weighed her options and decided she would undergo the procedure at Clinica Ruiz, a private clinic in Puebla, Mexico, which boasts of the largest volume of cases in the world using the procedure to treat MS. In April 2018, she went to Mexico for treatment, returned home in a month, and continues to do well.
But a positive outcome is far from assured, says Sheldon Krimsky, adjunct professor in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at the Tufts School of Medicine.
"Often you can't get a good sense of what the quality of treatment is in another country," Krimsky says, adding that many companies promise procedures whose results have not been clinically validated. "Unfortunately, people are very easily persuaded by hope."
Traveling for Medical Care
Snell is one of many Americans who have traveled abroad to access medical care. Patients Beyond Borders, a medical tourism consultancy, estimates that 2.2 million Americans will do so in 2020. A 2018 BCC report projected a five-year compounded annual industry growth rate of 13.2 percent. Adding to the demand is the aging population, which is expected to reach 95 million people by 2060 – nearly double the number in 2018.
While Snell traveled to Mexico to try a procedure that was not yet available in the United States, other patients do so for a variety of reasons, primarily cost and speed of access. For example, despite having "pretty good insurance coverage," Washington resident Soniya Gadgil needed dental procedures that would have cost thousands of dollars out-of-pocket. An India native, she decided to travel to Pune, India to visit her parents -- and while there, she got the two root canals and implant that she needed. Gadgil saved 60 percent on the final bill.
Leaving the country for medical care is not restricted to dental work or FDA-banned procedures either. Patients visit countries around the world — South America, Central America, and the Caribbean top the list — for a number of other problems, such as knee and hip replacements and bariatric operations. The most common procedures sought abroad are for dentistry, cosmetic surgery, and cardiac conditions.
Traveling abroad to access less expensive procedures is a damning indictment of healthcare delivery in the United States, says Dr. Leigh Turner, associate professor at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota. "We have people who are being forced out of the system because of high costs. Collectively it suggests a real structural problem in terms of the organization of healthcare in the United States," Turner says.
The Growth of the Online Marketplace
Nevertheless, medical tourism is booming and a number of online businesses now meet patients' demand for discovery and facilitation of medical care abroad, like PlanMyMedicalTrip.com, Doctoorum.com, and Wellness Travels.
Anurav Rane, CEO and Founder of PlanMyMedicalTrip.com, says the company presents each potential client with options, a la Expedia. A knee replacement in India costs $2,500, a significantly cheaper option even with a $1,110 round-trip airfare from the United States, Rane says. The average cost for an inpatient total knee replacement in the United States in 2019 was a little more $30,000.
Once the client chooses a specific procedure at a specific hospital, the company facilitates the necessary groundwork including the medical visa, tickets, hotel stay, booking the procedure and pre and post-op stay, and consults with the surgeons or doctors even before arrival. "The hassle of planning is on us," Rane says. Once patients are settled in the accommodations, they undergo the procedure.
Playing in the Legal Shadows
The online marketplace companies and the medical team execute an orchestrated dance – but what happens if the patient is harmed during or after the procedure?
Turner says that medical malpractice, if it occurs, can be difficult to pursue abroad. "There are countries where the courts are notoriously slow and it's very difficult to get any kind of meaningful action and settlements," he says, even if the claims have a legitimate basis.
The industry's biggest challenge is trust.
Snell signed a waiver absolving her surgeons in Mexico of any legal claims. But, she points out, that's standard process even for procedures in the United States. "I signed just as many waivers as I would going into any surgery [in the US]."
While that might well be true, Turner argues, Americans don't waive legal rights when they sign consent forms. "There are some protections for patients here in the United States."
Beyond U.S. Medical Tourism
As expected, it's not just Americans who travel abroad for medical care. Lithuania-based Wellness Travels sees a significant percentage of its clients from the EU. PlanMyMedicaltrip.com has 15,000 surgeons and doctors from 12 countries in its database. Egypt-based Doctoorum works with professionals in its own country and attracts clients from the Middle East. It is looking to expand to include doctors from Jordan and India, among other countries.
The term "tourism" is misleading here because it muddies the picture about what post-op should really look like, says Gediminas Kondrackis of Wellness Travels. "Unfortunately a lot of medical travel facilitators mislead their clients by advertising beach holiday packages and the like. Post-op is really about quiet recovery inside for a few days; being out in the sun is not advisable."
The industry's biggest challenge is trust. "The dentist I went to is actually a friend of mine who has a successful practice for several years," says Gadgil, the Washington resident who had dental work done in India. "I'd hesitate to go to someone I don't know or to a place I have no experience with." Her apprehensions are not unusual. After all, anxiety is an expected reaction to any surgery. Word-of-mouth, cost savings, and thorough research may alleviate some of these trust issues.
"I had natural apprehensions and would have had them had I gone up the road to Brigham and Women's (in Boston) just as I did over the border," Snell says, "but I had done my homework extensively. That took a lot of the fear out of it."
Medical tourism will only increase, predicts Kondrackis. "There is still a lot of room to grow. Higher numbers of medical travelers could help reduce the strain on local healthcare systems by reducing wait times and controlling costs."
While patients who have benefited from medical tourism swear by it, the best cure would be to start at home by establishing healthcare equity, Krimsky says.
On the flip side, says Turner, it is debatable whether medical tourism actually benefits host countries, where local residents might get priced out of procedures at these exclusive clinics. Even if laws in host countries such as India might mandate "charity care" for poorer local patients, that does not always happen, Turner says. The trickle-down theory that these more expensive clinics will broaden access to care is often a pipe dream, he adds.
While patients who have benefited from medical tourism swear by it, the best cure would be to start at home by establishing healthcare equity, Krimsky says. "Now if we had universal healthcare in the United States," he adds, "that would be an entirely different story."
Or maybe not. Rane, of PlanMyMedicalTrip.com, has observed an influx of patients to India from Canada, a country with universal healthcare.
The reason they say they travel for care? Long wait times for procedures.
When Eli Hall was in his thirties, he had a kidney stone that needed surgery. Despite having medical insurance, his out-of-pocket costs for the procedure came to $4,000.
Mira promises that most routine visits will cost around $99 or slightly above.
Hall, an Arizona-based small business owner soon discovered that such costs were proving to be the norm. As a result, he stopped buying insurance altogether. Now he pays in to a subscription-based model of healthcare where $300 per month will get him, his wife, and two children unlimited access (either over the phone or through in-office visits) to doctors in the Redirect Health network. This subscription also meets the Affordable Care Act insurance mandate.
Hall's move away from the traditional insurance care model might have been deliberate, but not everyone is as lucky. In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 30.1 million people under the age of 65 were uninsured in the United States. Now, a new startup called TalktoMira is helping those without insurance access doctors for routine visits — affordably.
The service, accessed through the website (or phone or text), evaluates a user's symptoms and returns recommendations for specific doctors that factor in wait times, traffic conditions, and pricing. Khang T. Vuong, the founder and CEO, expects that doctors will be willing to provide discounts through this model, as they're eliminating the administrative costs associated with the insurance middleman. Some discounts can be as high as 50 percent, according to the website.
Mira promises that most routine visits will cost around $99 or slightly above. "This provides people who can't afford paying $3,000 to $4,000 per year in insurance premiums an alternative to access basic healthcare," Vuong says.
As of press time, Mira is available in the Washington D.C., Northern Virginia, and Dallas, and will soon expand across the country via a partnership with a national network of healthcare providers.
"For those who live in places where we don't have a presence, users can still search for the nearest and least busy urgent cares. The goal is to build a national database of walk-in clinics with straightforward upfront pricing so the 30 million uninsured and 56 million underinsured have access to same or next day primary care at an upfront affordable cost," Vuong says.
Getting Around Traditional Insurance
Mira caters to the uninsured by helping them navigate the healthcare system the moment they need it. "Currently cash patients have to rely mainly on Google for searching for options," Vuong says, adding that patients do also occasionally work with the app ZocDoc for booking. "However [ZocDoc] info has no pricing information; we fill in that much-needed gap," Vuong says. In focus groups TalktoMira conducted, a majority (70 percent) reported cost of service as their main barrier to healthcare.
As Hall's subscription-based model proves, cash-driven access like TalktoMira is not the only option for the uninsured. Direct primary care like the kind that Redirect Health delivers is another way to get around high premiums. It does so by effectively eliminating the administrative costs associated with the middleman, says David Slepak, the CEO of Redirect. Doctors who are tired of packed schedules and the administrative headaches involved with the insurance model are only too happy to be a part of subscription or cash-based models, explains Vuong.
But TalktoMira and direct primary care models don't resolve the challenges of insurance related to catastrophic events.
James Corbett, Principal at Initium Health, points out the uninsured can also access federally qualified health centers across the country or a free clinic, but these might have problems of long wait times.
"Not a Cure-All"
TalktoMira might not provide the same level of consistency that seeing a primary care doctor does, though Vuong says there are ways to see the same doctor again by choosing them through the system. He adds that TalkToMira also empowers patients by asking them about their satisfaction after the visit and to see if any further checkups might be warranted, thus enabling patients to rate their doctors just like they would any other service provider.
"I might not have one primary care doctor, but I have the entire system behind me," says Hall.
But TalktoMira and direct primary care models don't resolve the challenges of insurance related to catastrophic events. The subscription model won't kick in if the patient has a heart attack and needs to be hospitalized, for example. So patients are also encouraged to purchase a high-deductible, low-premium plan for such contingencies.
"We're spending so much on insurance for the car that we can't afford the gas to drive the car."
Vuong recognizes TalktoMira doesn't solve all the problems related to insurance, but it can at least start by helping to facilitate access to routine visits. Even the insured don't always seek out a doctor because of copays and high deductibles, Slepak says. "We're spending so much on insurance for the car that we can't afford the gas to drive the car," he says.
TalktoMira is hoping that by making routine care accessible, it might both lessen the crunch in emergency rooms where many people don't really belong, and also nip problems in the bud.
"It's not a cure-all, not a panacea," admits Vuong. "It won't get you a knee replacement. But at least I can get you in the system so you might not have to get to that point."