by Sarah Coughlan and Dr. Saule Balciuniene
For the growing numbers of patients opting to travel abroad for medical treatment, the process can look scary. However, with solid guidance and the right information, medical travel can be an excellent alternative to expensive treatment at home, or provide treatment unavailable in the patient’s home country.
For medical travelers, their considerations can be broken up into three groups of concerns: medical, logistical and financial.
Medical concerns are naturally the most important for patients traveling for medical treatment. All patients would be well advised to do thorough research on the clinics, hospitals and doctors they are considering. This means going beyond online reviews (although these are the ideal place to start). Don’t be afraid to contact clinics and ask questions. Find out how many times a procedure has been performed, its success rate and its recovery time. Getting an overview of a doctor’s qualifications, their specialty and experience, and the clinic or hospital’s international accreditations helps, too. For a guide, see here. What should follow next is a thorough consultation with at least one or two potential doctors. Ask about cost, recovery time and aftercare. For foreign patients, many doctors offer consultations online via Skype or similar platforms.
Before booking flights, patients need to consider recovery time, as well as anything which means patients should not fly, such as a gas bubble in the eye, or gas in the body. As the treating physician needs to ensure the patient’s fitness to fly, it is advised to book flights allowing plenty of recovery time – or to get a flexible return.
Dr. Saule Balciuniene is a medical advisor toMEDIGO. She offered her advice about the key considerations a doctor must make before allowing a patient to fly:
“In general, after any surgical procedure, the managing physician has to ensure that there are no complications, the recovery is smooth and reasonably complete, and special needs, such as post-operative pain control, are attended. If all the vital functions are normal (respiration, blood flow, etc.), the patient tolerates fluids and food, pain is controlled, deep venous thrombosis prophylaxis is discussed, then usually the patient can fly home.”
So, having spoken to several specialists in your procedure or treatment, and established appropriate recovery periods, patients should see to it that there is communication between their general practitioner and their doctor abroad. This stage of the process is vital in ensuring that the doctor abroad has access to the patient’s medical history and can tailor their treatment plans around it. Keeping the patient’s local doctor in the loop is important for pre- and post-procedure treatment. For the patient’s peace of mind, cooperation between the medical practitioners can be a helpful indicator that their treatment path is the right one. Depending on the procedure, you may also need extensive follow-up care. Patients after bariatric surgery, for example, require regular check-ups with a doctor to monitor their progress.
Once satisfied with the clinic and staff, a patient’s next consideration is the trip logistics:
Patients need to know if they need additional support on location, such as language interpretation, ground transportation, or hotel visits from a recovery nurse. The patient needs to know if their passport grants visa-free access to the country intended (find that information here). If not, patients will need to apply for a visa. For some patients, like patients in the U.S., this will be easier than for others. For places that are more difficult to obtain a visa, some assistance from the clinic or facilitator may be necessary. Medical facilitators can usually help to point patients towards clinics which offer visa support if necessary
For most patients it also makes a lot of sense to bring a friend or relative along while travelling for medical treatment. The first few days after surgery often leave patients weak and in need of a helpful, friendly face. It also makes sense to make a note of the nearest home-country embassy or consulate, just in case. Also, patients should give their clinic contact details for their next of kin and local doctor.
The final group of considerations concern financial matters. For many patients, the reason they have opted to cross borders for their procedure is that the treatment is substantially cheaper in the destination country. It is unlikely that their local insurance will cover treatment abroad (for patients in the E.U., the E.U. Parliament has a help video here). Before going abroad for treatments, patients need to ensure that their local insurance will cover any post-procedure complications. A potential solution is medical complications insurance, which can be obtained through an experienced medical travel facilitator.
Be wary of hidden charges. Ask for a procedure cost estimate upfront. Ask the doctor what other additional costs you should expect to pay for? For example, before teeth whitening, dentists often perform a teeth cleaning.
Lastly, and this one is easy to miss, inform your bank that you will be abroad if you intend to make any transactions at all via your debit or credit card. In notifying your bank about your trip, you avoid automatic blocking of your card. (Read more about unfortunate travelers unable to access their own cash precisely for this reason here). This is the kind of travel nuisance you want to avoid!
Medical travel can be stressful, but with careful planning and the right advice it can offer an alternative to expensive local treatment or long waiting times in one’s home country – without compromising quality.