Record inflation and rising health care costs have resulted in the number of Americans traveling abroad for medical and dental care to rebound to pre-pandemic levels. More than 787,000 Americans are expected to seek treatment outside the country this year, compared to 781,000 before the pandemic, according to a HealthCare.com study.
- 263,000 are projected to seek medical treatment outside the country, up from 115,000 in 2020.
- 523,000 are expected to travel for dental care, compared to 173,000 in 2020.
Most travelers are looking for more affordable care than what is available at home.
Prices for dental services jumped 1.9% in June, which was the largest monthly increase since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking numbers in 1995. Medical services were up 0.7%.
“Inflation is driving dental and medical costs higher,” says Josef Woodman, CEO of Patients Beyond Borders. “This is encouraging patients (including middle- and upper-middle-class patients) to seek cross-border options for care.”
Although driving across the Mexican border for cleanings and implants remains the backbone of U.S. medical travel, Americans increasingly seek major surgeries at hospitals in global destinations. Procedures costing more than $5,000 grew from 5% of total procedures in 2017 to 22% in 2022 for the travel service Medical Departures.
“We’ve seen a move toward bigger-dollar procedures because people can’t afford to have them done in the United States,” COO Jacob Pope says. “If you go back 20 years, medical travelers were people who couldn’t afford to have basic stuff done, folks who live near the border going across for cleaning and crowns. That’s not what we’re seeing now. It’s people from all over who couldn’t afford bigger procedures in the U.S.”
The pandemic also has made consumers more comfortable with alternative sources of care. “It’s well documented that pandemic-driven telehealth has caused patients to become more trusting of new methods of providing care, particularly among older people who generally have been more reliant on the traditional in-person doctor visit,” Woodman says.
Other patients are traveling for elective procedures such as orthopedic surgery that may be denied by U.S. insurers.
Related: International health insurance trends in the post-pandemic world
“The cost of a total knee replacement in the U.S. is $35,000 to $60,000, and it’s not uncommon even for insured patients to pay $10,000 to $20,000 out of pocket,” Pope says. “But even in Spain, where you have a first-world medical system, the cost of a knee replacement is in the $6,000 to $10,000 range.”
However, most U.S. health insurance will not cover procedures outside the country. Regardless of the reason, experts caution patents to weigh the cost savings for medical procedures against travel expenses, safety, quality of care and other factors.
“Patients should balance their U.S. costs against the total cost of overseas procedures and travel, and keep safety as their first priority,” HealthCare.com cofounder Jeff Smedsrud says. “Medical travelers should also remember that many countries require U.S. citizens to have travel insurance in order to visit.”