English-speaking patients are increasingly traveling to such places as Malaysia, Brazil and Mexico to save anywhere from 30 to 90 percent on medical procedures. The medical tourism market reached $10.9 billion in 2012, and according to projections by Transparency Market Research, it will grow to $32.5 billion annually by 2019.

Some experts warn of the risks of traveling for medical procedures, however. Boston plastic surgeon Samuel Lin recalls a woman who had traveled abroad for breast augmentation. She came into his office complaining of discomfort, thinking her silicone implant had ruptured—only to learn a large cloth had been left in her chest.

Such cases have some consumers wondering whether the risks of medical tourism are worth it. If you’re considering traveling abroad to have a medical procedure performed, know the risks ahead of time so you can make an informed decision.

Know the Risks

A British National Health Research Institute study published in February found many consumers who traveled for medical treatment were not informed about potentially serious risks. The study found most people rely on the Internet or friends rather than hard clinical findings. They had no idea about the risks, such as a lack of legal recourse and the costs of non-emergency care back home to fix problems that arose overseas.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) express similar concerns and cautions about other potential problems. These include language barriers, unsafe needle reuse, substandard medication, greater bacteria presence and increased risk of post-surgical blood clots after a long flight. To reduce these risks, the CDC suggests taking these preventive measures:

  • Check provider qualifications with the Joint Commission International
  • Get written agreements
  • Plan to have a translator available
  • Arrange follow-up care with your stateside physician

Consider Your Alternatives

If the potential hazards are too risky for you, consider other payment alternatives:

  • Last year, the Oregon Office for Health Policy Research reviewed some promising alternative payment methods that have grown more popular recently. These include bundled payments of a set amount for all services rendered during a single health care episode, shared saving incentives for providers, pay-for-performance incentives and patient-centered medical home payments. Ask your health care provider if he or she participates in any of these.
  • In November, the American Medical Association passed recommendations for payment models structured around team-based health care.
  • If you’re entitled to regular payments from a structured settlement or annuity, consider selling your future payments to a company like J.G. Wentworth for a lump sum of cash now. You can then use the funds to help cover your medical expenses.

Take Precautions

If you decide the risk is worth it, make sure you abide by the guidelines for safe practices issued by the American Medical Association. These guidelines stipulate that care abroad must be offered voluntarily in a way that does not limit other options. Only internationally accredited facilities should be used. Preparatory and follow-up care should be coordinated with treatment abroad and factored into coverage. Patients should be advised of their rights and informed of the risks of combining surgical procedures with long flights.

And, we would be remiss if we didn’t advise you to check your disability insurance policy provisions to be sure coverage would be included if you were to become disabled while out of the country.