How Medical Tourism Really Works

Success stories are regular features of The Motley Fool's Rule Your Retirement newsletter service, where we share profiles of people who have become financially independent. One of the most remarkable stories we've come across is that of Akaisha and Billy Kaderli, who retired two decades ago at the age of 38 and began traveling the world. In this article, Billy talks about a recent firsthand experience with medical facilities outside the U.S.

As an adult, I have been in the hospital overnight on five occasions for various health issues -- four times in the U.S. in different facilities and states, and once now in Guatemala. In three of those four times in the U.S. I experienced negative outcomes. That’s 75% of my personal experiences with U.S. hospital care that have been unfavorable.

The problems have included the incorrect construction of a cast covering a broken wrist, little or no follow-up from doctors once a procedure was completed -- leaving me confused, concerned, and on my own to figure things out -- and a four-night mega-bucks stay complete with a misdiagnosis.

My confidence in the U.S. system is shaken.

A Guatemalan comparison
Recently I was admitted into Centro Medico, a private hospital in Guatemala City, for major abdominal pain and related issues. My local doctor in Panajachel recommended that I go to the hospital for better analysis and treatment of my condition after she examined me twice -- once on a late-night call to my hotel room ($19). Doctora Zulma arranged transportation and called the hospital ahead of time so that my admission was expected and things would run smoothly.

After a tortuous, twisting, mountainous road trip at midnight, I arrived at the emergency room at 3 a.m. Once there, the quality of care was top notch and professional. Due to my condition, a specialist was called in. He examined me, and I had an X-ray taken. On his recommendation, by 5 a.m. I was admitted into a hospital room where I stayed two nights. During this time I saw this internal medicine specialist on six occasions, was administered intravenous medications, and had another X-ray, a C.T. scan, and several blood draws. Dr. Flores spoke English and was very thorough in answering my every question, explaining his findings and treatment. In the typical respectful Latin manner, he shook my hand each time he entered or left my room.

Resort care?
The nurses took time to explain to me what I.V. drip they were administering and to make sure I was comfortable. If I needed something, I asked, and my request was quickly fulfilled. During this time, several other doctors came in to check on me to be sure I was not in pain and ask whether I had any questions. Honestly, I felt like I was being taken care of in an upscale resort.

My semi-private room had a flat-screen TV and Wi-Fi connectivity, and it was cleaned two to three times per day. Fresh towels and hospital garb were given to me daily, my linens were changed each morning, and I was offered a list of choices for meal periods. Each time someone entered my room, he or she called me by name.

Upon my release from hospital care, Dr. Flores gave me both his personal cell and his email address so that I could contact him in 10 days with an update on my condition.

Hospitality agents then came in to help me obtain my medical bill (which I received in one hour); delivered my lab results, X-rays, and CT scan for me to take home; and called a taxi to take me back to Panajachel. One agent had me take a survey regarding my care: On a scale of zero to 10, how would I rate my overall stay? My doctor? The nurses? The radiology department? The attendants? The room’s cleanliness? The quality of food? I was also asked for any additional comments.

Justified or unjustified
We hear many concerns from our readers about being sick and having treatment in foreign countries, wondering what horrors they may face. But based on my personal experiences, my fears are more about being in, rather than outside, the U.S. to receive medical care.

Room cost breakdown
The costs of this medical adventure were as follows (translated to dollars):

  • Room (two nights): $150
  • Medicines and devices: $472
  • Laboratory: $142
  • Radiology (two X-rays and abdominal C.T. scan): $669
  • Extraordinary services: $7
  • Hospitality services: $19
  • Internal medicine doctor: $150

Total bill: $1,609

The U.S. has the best care in the world?
A quick comparison of prices in the U.S. showed that the average cost of an abdominal C.T. scan is $4,700 alone. Same machine, same technology. Do you believe that the one in the States is seven times better?

Centro Medico’s website advertises a friendly environment and human, personal care -- and I can vouch for that. The medical attendants shook my hand, and the nurses gave me a hug when I left!

Between the ridiculous expense and the poor care I received in the States, using medical tourism is a no-brainer for me.

Click here for information on travel insurance and foreign insurance and here for information on medical tourism.

Billy and Akaisha Kaderli are recognized retirement experts and internationally published authors on topics of finance and world travel. With the wealth of information they share on their popular website, RetireEarlyLifestyle.com, they have been helping people achieve their own retirement dreams since 1991. You can order their latest book, Your Retirement Dream IS Possible, here.


Read/Post Comments (4) | Recommend This Article (11)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

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  • Report this Comment On February 23, 2012, at 3:01 PM, ChuckinSC wrote:

    I too have participated in medical tourism. My experience was very positive. In my opinion, for select medical procedures, medical tourism isn't a luxury. Rather, it's an imperative.

  • Report this Comment On February 23, 2012, at 4:15 PM, RenegadeIAm wrote:

    First, you are viewing what is cheap to you and forgetting that this would be just as expensive--to a Guatemalan. Your bill was about 30% of the per capita income in Guatemala.

    Second, Survival rate after diagnosis of serious diseases is far higher in the USA than anywhere else. There's no disputing that.

    That being said, crippling regulations and the government forcing medical companies and insurers to pay for things drives prices way up.

    Also, as in any economic sector, the availability of money drives up prices. Way up. It happens in the universities (easy grants and student loans), and it happened in the medical area--medicare, medicaid and forcing insurers to pay. Forcing hospitals to treat simply makes the price higher for the smaller number of people/insurers who can pay.

    Medical treatments outside of heavy government regulation--plastic surgery and lasik, for example--continue to drop in price and improve in quality.

    Centro Medico’s service is proof of the quality gained by private organizations seeking soltuions to problems without crushing government interference.

  • Report this Comment On February 23, 2012, at 8:48 PM, CaptainWidget wrote:

    <<Centro Medico’s service is proof of the quality gained by private organizations seeking soltuions to problems without crushing government interference.>>

    Agreed. You can find great health care in the US too, if you look outside of the old system. I now use quickcare, cash only clinics for 99% of the my medical issues. $65 (as opposed to a $300 insurance bill with $50 co-pay) and I'm out the door. I buy my prescription glasses from Hong Kong for $10 (as opposed to $300 from the local eye doctor). If I ever have another serious surgery or medical procedure I need to go through, I'll go to bumrungrad hospital in Bangkok (generally considered one of the best in the world) and pay a few thousand dollars for treatment (as opposed to 100K in the US).

    Competition makes better healthcare, and people are now competing to get out of the US medicare/medicade/insurance nightmare.

  • Report this Comment On February 24, 2012, at 7:22 PM, dsurdyka wrote:

    This article is comparing apples and oranges. The average citizen in Guatemala doesn't get that kind of care. I have many friends who are doctors from India, two of them flew one of their parents here to have me perform their knee arthroplasty. Any type of quality care in India requires cash and not one of my friends said they would go back to India instead of having care here. Centro Medico probably has a much better profit margin than any facility here with lower costs at every level and without having to subsidize patients who can't pay. I would love to see their balance sheet. I have another friend from El Salvador, he grew up using an outhouse and an old fashioned water pump. Contaminated water in third world countries kills more people than good hospitals save.

    Certainly, there are many significant problems with our system but this article provides no meaningful comparison or solution.

    What was the diagnosis? If this was a simple case of traveler's gastroenteritis, he was ripped off! and unnecessarily exposed to radiation.

    At the bottom of the article there are some medical tourism links which I didn't bother to check but If the authors of this article make money selling medical tourism, this should be disclosed.

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