By Darrell Hughes
Twenty-five years ago, the idea of traveling overseas to get your teeth fixed or to have an organ transplant wouldn’t have been a consideration. It was simply a big no-no.
But with hefty medical costs in the United States, more Grand Strand residents and others across the country are taking advantage of cost-saving health care opportunities abroad.
However, health professionals are advising consumers to do extensive research before having medical procedures done in other countries.
More than 150,000 Americans traveled afar for health care procedures in 2007, and that number is expected to double by 2010, said Josef Woodman, chief operating officer of Healthy Travel Media, a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based firm. The company publishes information and books on medical tourism, such as “Patients Beyond Borders: Everybody’s Guide to Affordable, World-Class Medical Tourism.”
There are no statistics to show when dental and health tourism first took flight, but some industry leaders say it began nearly a decade ago in small numbers. Others believe it picked up during the past five years or so.
There are, however, hundreds of documented cases of individuals traveling overseas for cosmetic surgery.
Robert Shelley of Myrtle Beach said a recent trip to Costa Rica in December and January to get dental work saved him roughly $30,000.
Shelley went to Costa Rica to have 27 crowns put in, nine of those with tooth implants, and surgery on his jaw bone. The work could have cost him more than $40,000 in America, he said. He paid $10,200 in Costa Rica.
Replacing a single tooth in America and adding a crown could cost roughly $3,500 per tooth. The same procedures in Costa Rica could cost from $1,250 to $1,750, according to price ranges listed by San Jose-based International Dental Clinic.
Shelley, who boasted about his major savings, was more impressed by his Costa Rican dentist refusing to let him travel in his rough, post-surgery condition. The physician canceled Shelley’s flight and personally paid for a one-way flight back to America the following week, Shelley said.
Bianca Moran is still a bit skeptical of having medical procedures done abroad, but she’s willing to compromise.
“It would have to be a major cost difference to justify the risk,” said the 28-year-old, with new white veneers put in by dentists at Pournaras Cosmetics in Myrtle Beach.
At least with U.S. doctors, if there are complications that require additional checkups, people can solve that with a doctor’s appointment, she said. “I can’t do that [with a doctor who is] 14 hours away in another country.”
A medical alternative
More South Carolinians are beginning to embrace overseas health care.
Dental care abroad tends to cost roughly 60 to 80 percent less than care in the U.S., said David Boucher, S.C. Blue Cross Blue Shield senior vice president for health care services.
Blue Cross has worldwide health care partnerships via its wholly owned subsidiary, Companion Global Healthcare.
Companion Global, a network of international medical facilities that Blue Cross members can use as an alternative medical facility, expanded its offerings in November to include dental services.
Boucher, who oversees Companion Global, said Blue Cross is striving to provide credible physicians and affordable medical care to its members. Company leaders have traveled to various countries to survey physicians and clinics before partnering with them, Boucher said. Companion Global has partnering facilities in Turkey, Thailand, Costa Rica and Ireland. It recently added three hospitals in Singapore.
Even Myrtle Beach city officials are traveling abroad in search of credible and cost-saving health care providers.
City budget director Michael Shelton traveled to Singapore and Bangkok, researching health care systems and the offshore costs.
The city is considering offering employees the option of traveling overseas for cheaper medical care, Shelton said.
“A lot of people are taking advantage of medical travel, and it’s mostly people without [medical] coverage or those who are underinsured,” he said.
Be a smart consumer
Shelley said before he committed to the medical procedures overseas, he read online reviews on the clinic he selected, called previous patients of the clinic and flew to Costa Rica to tour the physician’s office.
American Dental Association consumer adviser Edmond Hewlett said people traveling abroad for health procedures need to be informed consumers.
“People in Southern California go across the border to have work done on their cars because they can get it done cheaper,” he said. “But people are not like appliances [or cars]. People should choose their dental provider very carefully … and the ADA does understand that cost is an issue, but people need to look at the value [in care].”
American consumers should also be mindful that U.S. physicians are held to a higher standard of accountability, with rules and regulations, such as insurance that U.S. physicians must carry that help protect themselves and consumers.
These standards contribute to an increase in medical costs, Hewlett said, adding that traveling abroad for medical procedures isn’t dangerous. Patients should ask questions about malpractice, the physician standards and infection control guidelines.
Myrtle Beach general and cosmetic dentist Billy Pournaras, of Pournaras Cosmetics, said he’s seen plenty of dental horrors.
Pournaras couldn’t say how many patients he’s seen during his eight years in business, but he said half of the patients he’s cared for who had dental work done abroad had complications. Pournaras said he’s treating a patient who went to Brazil to get dental implants that are now failing and will need to be replaced.
“Then on the other side of the coin, we’ve had patients that have gone overseas and have had pretty good dentistry work done, pretty comparable to what they could get done in the USA,” he said. “Those are the patients that really did their research and found someone reputable. Every country is going to have someone who knows what they’re doing and have the proper education to do it.”