Medical tourism can save you thousands of dollars. But is it worth the risk?

Tyler Mitchell By Tyler Mitchell Jun30,2024
As the cost of living continues to bite, many of us are looking for every opportunity to save money.
Data shows millions of Australians have put off medical appointments due to the cost, while .
In an effort to stretch our finances further, more of us have also been travelling to countries like Thailand and Türkiye in recent years for cheaper medical, dental, or cosmetic procedures — a practice known as medical tourism.

“Australia, by virtue of having a cost of health crisis alongside a cost of living crisis — and that be both in the provision of health services, the funding of Medicare as well as the cost of private health insurance — has made it just that little bit more expensive and that little bit less reasonable to be able to do a lot of these treatments at home,” Finder insurance expert Tim Bennett said.

The prospect of getting faster treatment is also causing Australians to look to other countries, according to Professor Mark Frydenberg, chair of the health policy and advocacy committee at the Royal Australian College of Surgeons (RACS).
“There’s sometimes very prolonged waits for some elective procedures within the public system — and then to self-fund it privately, some people might find quite expensive to do,” he said.

“There’s certainly been an increasing number of people that have actually sought care overseas rather than having it done locally.”

You could save thousands — but beware of surprise costs

Medical, dental, and cosmetic procedures can be thousands of dollars cheaper in other countries.
But the exact cost will depend on the type of procedure you have, where you have it, and — if you have private health insurance in Australia — how much excess you would have needed to pay, Bennett said.
“A lot of the time you are definitely saving money, but it’s not like you’re paying 10 per cent of the overall cost,” he said.

“A surgery that might cost $30,000 here will cost, say, $10,000 in Türkiye.”

A woman packing medication in a cosmetic bag. Alongside it on the bed is an open purple suitcase, passport, black face masks, and disinfectant spray

Australians become medical tourists primarily to save money and avoid long public hospital waiting lists. Source: Getty / petrunjela/Getty Images

Beyond the cost of the procedure, accommodation, and flights, you also need to factor in how much you might have to pay if it doesn’t go as planned, Bennett said.

“If anything goes wrong, just in general around the trip, you often won’t be covered for travel insurance,” he said.

“If there’s a complication in the surgery, which has nothing to do with the quality of the surgeons necessarily, but your body may react in a particular way — that is not going to be covered by travel insurance … so the cost could run up.”

The risks of medical tourism

Like the costs, the risks associated with medical tourism vary depending on the type of treatment and where you’re getting it.
Frydenberg said there can be “very stark differences” between the quality of care and medical standards in Australia and other countries.
“Some of the surgeons and facilities where this may take place overseas may be perfectly appropriate; they may be well-trained surgeons and they may be good facilities and they may provide a very good quality of care,” he said.

“The problem is it’s a bit unknown.”

Even in countries with similar regulations to Australia, things can still go wrong, Frydenberg warned.
“For example, if you had an operation and let’s say you had a heart attack or something … do you have a team of cardiologists there that can actually deal with the problem, do you have an interventional team that can put in cardiac stents acutely if there’s an issue?” he said. 

“We obviously hope none of these things happen to any patient that has surgery, but unfortunately these things do happen from time to time and you’d want to be as certain as you could be that wherever you had it done had the facilities to look after those unforeseen problems.”

An elderly woman wearing a straw hat, sitting in a wheelchair near a lake

Medical tourism isn’t without its risks. Source: Getty / Halfpoint Images

And the potential for complications doesn’t necessarily end once you leave the country where you had your procedure, Frydenberg added.

“One of the risks after any operation is deep venous thrombosis – clots in the legs, which can travel off to the lungs,” he said.
“That’s a potentially fatal complication. It is also a complication that happens with long-haul flying, so if you actually combine the two together, long-haul flying and an operation, that risk escalates.
People also need to “understand who’s going to manage complications as they’re travelling home, if they get an infection … because their treating surgeon is in another country and they would not have necessarily seen people back here,” Frydenberg said.
Australian authorities are limited in medical tourists.

According to the Smart Traveller website, the government can contact your family back home with your permission, and give you a list of local hospitals, doctors, and lawyers who speak English.

But it can’t recommend hospitals or surgeons for your procedure, nor can they represent you in legal cases or intervene in local legal processes.
The government also can’t pay your medical expenses, evacuation, or legal costs, or get you out of trouble or jail if you’re unable to pay your bills.
Bennett said he personally wouldn’t risk it.
“If you’re getting dental work done overseas and you’re only saving a few thousand dollars, I would suggest that maybe that’s not worth it,” he said.
“If you’re saving in the $20,000 to $30,000 range, which a lot of people can get that kind of saving, then perhaps — but on those bigger projects, you’re also paying a lot more, and it’s also probably much more major surgery … so there are other risks involved.

“I feel like the savings aren’t worth it for me, but that calculus is going to change for different people.”

Frydenberg acknowledged some patients were stuck between a rock and a hard place.
“I don’t want to be saying ‘don’t do it’,” he said.

“I think there are some people who, for example, might be waiting a long period of time to get something done and their quality of life is poor as a result — but it does worry us as a college.”

Still plan to go? Make sure you’re well-prepared

If you’re still considering medical tourism, both Bennett and Frydenberg said it was vital to be as careful as possible.
“There needs to be some caution and due diligence done,” Frydenberg said.
“They would absolutely need to check the experience and qualifications of the surgeon doing the procedure,” Frydenberg said.

“You’d need to make sure that there was an appropriate preoperative consultation to make sure that actually was appropriate, that they were actually even having the procedure in the first place, and that they feel like they’ve got enough information about the risks and benefits in order to make an informed decision about actually doing surgery.”

Bennett said comparing different providers was key to lowering the risk.
“You are essentially going out on your own. You’re not going to be insured by travel or health insurance. You are going to be taking your life and your finances into your own hands. So, at the very least, you owe it to yourself to do as much research as you possibly can,” he said.
Smart Traveller recommends talking to your doctor in Australia about your plans and asking for their advice before, as well.

It also advises getting a health check at least six weeks before your trip, taking someone with you to help support you or make decisions for you if things go wrong, and making sure your will is up-to-date.

Tyler Mitchell

By Tyler Mitchell

Tyler is a renowned journalist with years of experience covering a wide range of topics including politics, entertainment, and technology. His insightful analysis and compelling storytelling have made him a trusted source for breaking news and expert commentary.

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