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December 09, 2011

Medical Tourism and Worldwide Air Ambulance Transportation

The “rise” of medical tourism has been in the news quite a bit recently, and I’ve been wanting to blog about the topic anyway, plus I just got an email from a patient we transported back to the U.S. via air ambulance last year.  So, I figure, now’s the time.

To start, the term “medical tourism” broadly refers to travelling internationally for medical care.  Sometimes patients go outside of the United States for health care that is less expensive in other countries; sometimes they go for procedures that they can’t get here.

That was the case for Sarah, who we transported back to the U.S. from Costa Rica after she had alternative cancer treatment there.  At the time, Sarah’s health was not good enough to travel commercially, which is why she chose a worldwide air ambulance.  I was thrilled to read Sarah’s update that her cancer is now in remission and she’s even back to work part time.

Medical tourism itself can be a fairly controversial topic, and I really don’t want to get into that debate here, but I do want to share a few points that are important to bear in mind for anyone with a medical condition who’s thinking about travelling internationally, or for anyone who’s thinking about travelling outside the U.S. for a medical procedure.

Might you need a worldwide air ambulance?

Point 1: If you’re travelling internationally, think about what you’d do if you had a serious medical emergency.  Certainly if you’re travelling abroad to have a medical procedure done, it’s very important to consider what you’d do if the procedure went wrong.  What are the hospitals like?  Where/how were the doctors trained?  Do you speak the language?

If you’re not comfortable with the quality of emergency medical care, if you don’t speak the language, and/or if you would need long-term medical care, then you might need to come back to the U.S.

Point 2: If you’ve had a medical emergency or a medical procedure went wrong, how will you get back to the U.S.?  I’ve blogged quite a bit about when a person with a medical condition can fly on a commercial airline.  Certainly I would never recommend that a patient in distress fly alone on a commercial airplane; there is simply too much that could go wrong at 35,000 feet to not have expert medical help.

Now a commercial air medical escort is certainly an option, but it’s only for patients who are relatively stable.  For the vast majority of patients who have had a medical emergency, and all of those in acute medical distress, a worldwide air ambulance is the only way to get the patient back to the United States to an appropriate medical facility.  Because it’s the only transport option that is fast and has the full range of life-supporting equipment.

Point 3: Consider who will cover the cost of an air ambulance should you need it.  As I’ve written before, medical insurance sometimes covers international air ambulance transfers, as does travel insurance – but not always.  If you elected to travel abroad for medical care and something went wrong, my guess is that neither medical insurance nor travel insurance would cover an air ambulance to bring you back to the U.S. (though that of course depends on your particular policy, and the circumstances).

So again, I’m not giving any advice on whether a person should or shouldn’t go outside of the U.S. for medical care.  I’m simply offering some points on things to think about if you are considering “medical tourism.”


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