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Dental clinic Platek Centrum in Szczecin, Poland
With an estimated 40 million Americans lacking medical insurance and an estimated 120 million lacking dental insurance, medical tourism by United States citizens has been booming.
An estimated 1.6 million U.S. residents traveled abroad in 2012 for medical care, according to Deloitte. A 2009 Grail Research LLC report says that Americans spent an estimated $35 billion on procedures abroad, a majority in Asia and Latin America. The most popular destinations are Mexico, Thailand, Brazil and Costa Rica, as well as India, Turkey and South Korea.
Lately, Central Europe’s “new” E.U. members–Hungary, Poland and Czech Republic and Latvia–are becoming popular destinations for U.S. and Canadian citizens. Still attracting patients mostly from other European countries, central Europe enjoys well-equipped medical facilities supported by generous E.U. funding.
Central and eastern European countries are known for natural spa and wellness resorts, which have been a local tradition for centuries. In Hungary there are approximately 1,500 thermal springs. Increasingly the region is also a chosen destination for more serious procedures, like heart and orthopedic surgeries, including heart transplants and prostate cancer treatment. According to a survey conducted by portal Treatment Abroad in 2012 on 1,045 Europeans shopping for procedures abroad (half of them British), the top three most popular locations were Hungary, Belgium and Poland, followed by Spain and Czech Republic.
“I’m getting more and more requests now to go to central Europe and believe it or not a lot of it are hip replacements, knee, orthopedic procedures” that are very expensive in the United States “as well as heart procedures,” says Julie Conner, president and co-founder of Global Medical Facilitators, a consulting group based in Seattle, Wash. Her company helps Americans find an appropriate facility abroad for their procedure. After sending clients to Mexico and Costa Rica for years, Conner has just shifted her attention to Poland, which she visited at the beginning of October.
“First I had clients inquiring about it, then I started doing research and found out a little bit about Poland,” Conner said. “I was reading a lot of articles about Poland, great articles about patients going to Poland for orthopedic and heart procedures.”
Conner’s company receives inquiries from about 10 patients a month who require hip or heart procedures. Dental implants are also popular. She did note a sharp fall in requests for plastic surgery in the recent year or so, possibly caused by the clinics in the U.S. market adjusting their prices.
From her experience, the most popular destinations for Americans and Canadians are at present Mexico, Costa Rica and Brazil, because of the proximity but as prices in these countries go up due to high demand, American patients are looking for alternatives. Central Europe is affordable enough, closer than Asia, and the culture is close enough not to cause a cultural shock.
The size of the medical tourism market in Europe or the central European region is hard to measure, as there are still no official indicators and only scraps of official data. Poland is the largest country in the region and recipient of the largest amount of E.U. funds. According to one estimate, in 2011 foreigners spent an estimated 800 million zlotys ($28.6 million) in Polish medical facilities. A research report, “Poland Medical Tourism Market 2013,” by TechSci Research, estimated in 2010 that by 2013 around 600,000 medical tourists would visit Poland. A follow-up report is forthcoming.
U.S. patients are mostly people without health insurance, Conner says, but not only. “I have patients that are two years from Medicare but still they have to have their hip replacement now, they can’t wait when they’re in that kind of pain,” she explains. The Canadian patients have a long waiting list to deal with, often 1-2 years, and that too pushes them to look abroad. Another type of inquiry Conner receives come from self-insured companies that have agreed for their employees to go abroad to have a medical procedure.
And the prices in central Europe are hard to beat. Dental implants, for instance, cost an average of 4,000 USD in the U.S. and an equivalent of 4,200 USD in the U.K. The same procedure would cost approximately 780 USD in Poland or Hungary, and even less in the Czech Republic. A hip replacement that in the U.S. costs $50,000 costs $11,500 USD in Poland according to a calculator put together by the Polish Medical Tourism Promotion Consortium, a group of private and governmental organizations promoting medical tourism in Poland.
The Polish government offers promotional and logistical help to local intermediaries and institutions offering treatment to foreigners. The E.U.-funded program under the patronage of the Polish Ministry of Economy has been promoting the country’s medical facilities since 2012 under the banner of the Polish Medical Tourism Promotion Consortium, uniting Polish health care providers and mediating advisory organizations, and providing tools like training sessions and government-supported international missions. The program targets especially Scandinavia, U.K., Germany, Russia and the U.S.