Medical tourism is travel of an existential sort. It is a trip to improve life—to stay alive—when medical treatment at home is inferior to treatment abroad.
It is a trip for patients who need immediate care, who need their doctors and legislators to know that they cannot wait, that the wait is too long and the situation too dire for patients to wait any longer; that to wait is to waste away, while agencies designed to help patients hurt them by making them wait for more clinical trials and additional testimony from clinicians; that patients would sooner lose their patience than their lives; that they can and will go elsewhere, aware of the risks, because they have nothing else to risk.
I write these words from personal experience, given my history of Crohn’s disease: a chronic and incurable form of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). I write these words as a medical tourist, or rather, as a former tourist whose travels continue to inspire me.
I write these words with respect for every doctor and surgeon I know and have corresponded with, as well as every researcher and chemist I have called. I write these words to call upon readers—to encourage readers to call upon all the resources at their disposal—to get the medical care they deserve.
That care differs between cities in the same country, never mind different countries, is reason enough to at least be a domestic medical tourist. To find out why the depth of care differs between, say, a hospital in Boston versus one in Baltimore. To find out why a treatment of first resort in one clinic is a drug of last resort in another. To find out, too, why the prognosis from a gastroenterologist in Chicago differs—significantly—from one in Copenhagen.
Finding these things out starts by reading the fine print. According to Wayne R. Cohen,a professor at The George Washington University School of Law and a partner at Cohen & Cohen, P.C.
Patient rights differ worldwide. Before engaging in medical tourism, it helps to have a lawyer review the terms and conditions of treatment in one country versus another. Preparation, in all respects, is essential for today's medical tourist.
To say I agree with Professor Cohen is an understatement. Which is to say I think like a patient, but I read like a lawyer; my legal training conditions me to review every codicil, contract, and conditional statement about treatment for my medical condition.
To refuse to do so is to jeopardize a patient’s safety, because action without awareness is neither medically sound nor legally smart. It is instead an act of folly—a fatal conceit—that no treatment can fix, no ruling can reverse, and no doctor can rectify.
My advice, then, is simple: Get the facts before you go searching for a cure, before you go anywhere, because medical tourism is no different than any other kind of travel in the following respects.
It requires financing and planning. It requires references and verifiable sources.It requires expertise with logistics, trade, customs, and law; many laws, including civil and criminal penalties regarding the possession or sale of prescription medication that is legal in one country but not in another.
But for my experience with Crohn’s, I would not know what a medical tourist should do before—well before—that person boards a plane or drives across the border to receive treatment in a foreign country. Given what I know, I would be remiss not to insist that patients mitigate risks so as not to lose time and money.
If you have the means to tour medical facilities in a foreign country, or to make a tour of several facilities in two or more countries, you should also have someone in charge of due diligence. Or you should hire a professional to help you, because no itinerary is complete—no checklist is full—without knowledge of the rules (or lack thereof) about your rights as a patient and as a traveler abroad.
Your legal safety is critical to your safety in general. To avoid harm, be an informed patient. In so doing, you will be a better medical tourist. You will be a safer traveler, too.