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Medical Tourism Scares Me

SUCHITOTO, El Salvador- The winds of tourism have the ability to gentrify that which they touch, quickly turning places, services, and items that were once considered cheap and a good value into over expensive, over priced rip offs. Medical tourism — in which people travel to other countries to receive medical procedures in an attempt [...]

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SUCHITOTO, El Salvador- The winds of tourism have the ability to gentrify that which they touch, quickly turning places, services, and items that were once considered cheap and a good value into over expensive, over priced rip offs. Medical tourism — in which people travel to other countries to receive medical procedures in an attempt to save money — is a rising industry in many countries around the world. It scares me to the bones.

As of now, I am able to travel to almost any country in the world with the knowledge that I can afford to pay — in cash — for just about any medical procedure that my family may need short of an extreme ailment. I know that I can visit a doctor and it will be cheap, maybe it will cost $5 or $10, there is a good chance that it will be free. Medical care is very cheap in most of the world.

I have paid next to nothing for many hospital visits in China, two nights in an upper class Indian hospital only took $100, $20 was the charge for a full scale prenatal visit in Istanbul for my wife, and just yesterday Petra needed to visit a doctor in El Salvador — it was free. As of now, in most countries a foreigner can waltz right into an emergency room, see a doctor, get a prognosis, get medication, and walk out paying next to nothing for it.

Yesterday in El Salvador, Petra received a consultation with a doctor, got blood, poop, and urine tests, as well as three different medications for free. Early on in the consultation I asked the doctor how much it all was going to cost as a safe guard against being railroaded. He just laughed at me: “It is all free, everything is gratis.”

It was.

But I fear that this could change very soon. My cousin in law just interpreted for the president of El Salvador at a conference on tourism and development. He told me that the country is putting the bulk of their developmental resources into mid-range tourism, real estate, and medical tourism. It seems as if El Salvador may soon be pinch hitting for Costa Rica, — it intends to fill the void that that country is now leaving vacant through its own gentrification: Costa Rica was once a retirement/ medical tourism haven because it has tropical climate and was cheap. It is not so cheap anymore. El Salvador knows that it is also a tropical country, and knows that it has the main draw that could bring in the money: it is cheaper than the USA, Canada, and Costa Rica.

It is my impression that El Salvador intends to make itself the new alternative.

If the cost of medical procedures were tripled in El Salvador, they would still be at least three times less than in the USA.

I can see the day where I am stopped at the hospital doors here and sent across town to the foreigner clinic. The same doctors who work at the hospital will probably cut me off at the pass, meet me at the doors of the medical tourism hospital, and then charge me 10 times the amount of money to receive the same care as I would have at the local — old, dark, and dingy — hospital.

Bleach white floor tiles, clean walls, and comfortable waiting room chairs are not worth paying 10 times more money — the medical care at the foreigner clinics is the same as at the hospital, the doctors are the same people, the stage set is pretty much the only thing that is different.

There is a major fear mongering movement over the medical facilities and health care abroad. Most travelers seem afraid to go to a local hospital, and pay 10 times more money by going to special foreigner clinics to receive just about the same care. It is true, the local hospitals look to be grim places — you can see buckets of blood, dying people, and dirt on the floors — but it has been my experience that foreigners generally receive acceptable care there. In fact, a foreigner in a local hospital in most countries is treated like an honored guest — a diplomat from abroad, perhaps — and they receive the best care the hospital can give.

In a foreigner clinic, you are a dime a dozen — they are use to seeing your white face, and even more accustom to taking your green money.

Medical tourists may pay less than they would in their own country for treatment, but they pay vastly more money that the local rate. In many countries, medical treatment is free for everyone or is more or less affordable. But what the medical tourists pay for their procedures is monumental if compared with the real cost of medical care in the country they seek the services of. The medical tourists are not strolling into local hospitals — no, they are going to special facilities created to care for them and, more importantly, to take their money.

Medical tourism will drive up the cost of health care in the countries that encourage this type of industry. As soon as one person smiles while paying ten times more money for a service it drives the prices up for everyone. When a merchant hears someone saying “Oh, it is so cheap here” when they are being ripped off, the next person will pay even more. And the residual effects often drop down to a local level.

It seldom takes much encouragement for a business to raise their prices.

I can foresee a day where every foreigner in a country will be required to go to special medical tourism facilities and pay 10 times the price of the local hospitals. I can see the road ahead, and I have the suspicion that I may someday be refused care in a local hospital abroad and forced to go to the white face clinic. The doctors in the local hospitals are often the same ones who work at the foreigner clinics — why would they care for me for a penance when the can charge me hundreds of dollars?

Medical tourism blends a profit motive with providing medical care — a foreign concept in many countries. I fear that once the meat is tasted, the bone will become lock jawed in the mouth of greed and common business sense. This is the monster that is tourism.

As soon as there is a context for extracting enormous amounts of money from foreigners for medical treatment, I will pay. I cannot afford the hyped up cost of the foreigner clinics. I fear medical tourism.

El Salvador Travel Guide — El Salvador Photos


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Filed under: Central America, Culture and Society, El Salvador, Health, Tourism

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3717 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

5 comments… add one

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  • G April 21, 2010, 1:06 am

    Yeah Wade, it seems to me this is the other(down) side of globalization. People in the developed world dislike it because they have to compete against low wage workers in developing countries like China, Mexico, Brazil etc and watch their jobs outsourced. While people in developing countries become upset when they realize that they must now compete against the accumulated capital of tourists from countries like the U.S., Germany, and U.K. which cause picturesque places like Antigua, Costa Rica and Thailand to become much more expensive. Toss in ex-pats who also compete for the affections of young local women and things can really get tense. But I think globalization is a done deal. Its going to happen, at this point we just have figure out how to make it work.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com April 21, 2010, 9:52 am

      I suppose some of the main theoretical — fairy tale — points of globalization is that it creates the potential to put all of the world on somewhat of an even economic playing field. It just figures that this playing field is crappy for everyone. So people lose their jobs in the developed countries and prices skyrocket in the places where the capital moves to. It is an interesting time in the world — as it always is.

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  • Gan April 24, 2010, 9:14 am

    It is true that a medical tourist may pay more than a local patient, but most possibly not in the same kind of hospital.
    Here are some of the things that are positive about medical tourism.
    1. Medical Tourism provides an excellent and proven solution for those in need in developed countries or from the countries in addition to those travelling else where for lack of facilities.
    2. In long run, developing countries will be building more hospitals which are world class, thus improving the health care for the local public.
    3. Competition in medical sector in developed countries will benefit the consumers also.
    On the other side, some of the medical tourism destinations offer little or no legal protection, in many countries there is no regulatory authority to protect medical tourists.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com April 24, 2010, 12:29 pm

      I can agree with your first two points, but the third about competition bring the price down I can’t buy. It is a little difficult to bring the price of medical care down any lower than what it is in much of the world: it is hard to compete with free.

      Although the medical facilities of the developing world are getting much better, I fear that the impending price differential will raise the cost of medical care for everyone.

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  • Medical Tourism September 22, 2010, 3:29 am

    I think that your concern is justified, but you are missing a small element in your assumption. You are only considering doctors and clinics willing to jack up the price. There will be many others who will be willing to cut price to attract medical tourists.
    An individual traveling to another country for treatment, should be a savvy buyer. Do research and understand the treatment cost locally. Everything is available online, you just need to find it.
    Remember if the seller can estimate the buyers willingness to pay, he/she will charge them the amount.

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