I was in China earlier this year and suddenly found myself in desperate need of a dentist.
The pain was too intense to wait the 10 days until I was back in New Zealand, so I had no option but to seek local help to tide me over until then.
I had no idea the quality of care I would receive, and was pleasantly surprised by how painless the experience was, both on my mouth and my wallet.
Now that I’m back, I’m facing a $2,600 dentist bill for a procedure that back in Chengdu, China would have only cost $1,000.
This made me think: with flights there around $600 return and accommodation and living costs low, for the same price as the procedure here, why not have a bit of a holiday where I can see some pandas and get my teeth fixed at the same time?
It’s already big business
Medical tourism has become a massive industry. According to a report from Orbis Research, global medical tourism was worth US$19.7 billion in 2016, and estimated to reach US$46.6 billion by 2021.
In New Zealand the most common medical treatments people travel for are dental, cosmetic, and eye surgeries, and the most frequent and cheapest destination is Thailand, although many South East Asian countries are options.
And it’s easy. Medical travel agencies offer packages that will take care of everything for you, from accommodation to the consultation to the surgery, plus recovery in an idyllic location, all for a lower price than getting it done locally.
So what’s the problem?
Wait, don’t pack the bags just yet
Unsurprisingly, Kiwi doctors are not fans of medical tourism, and not without good reason.
There are serious risks to consider with any surgery, but when in a foreign land that has fewer regulations, these risks escalate.
Search online and you will find horror stories of rogue surgeons, botched operations and Kiwis who have died.
Wellington eye surgeon Andrew Logan told Stuff in 2015 that he typically has two patients a year requiring treatment to correct an overseas eye surgery, one so severe they needed a cornea transplant.
Then there’s the fact that surgery is more than just the procedure, it’s the recovery as well.
“Patients underestimate the importance of after-surgery follow-up and the complications that come after surgery," Auckland ophthalmologist Dr Sue Ormonde told Stuff in 2015.
Furthermore, insurance is unlikely to help you too much, infectious diseases are more common, and you can practically forget about any malpractice lawsuits.
Put simply, it’s not a decision to be taken lightly, and paying a lower price in the short term may end up costing you a lot more in the long term.