Medical tourism to Colombia increases

When Brevard County resident Emiliano Santos needed dental services, he headed south…to Colombia and the offices of Dr. Marlon Becerra. Here, Santos, a native of Puerto Rico, enjoyed a mini-vacation that included complex dental procedures, including implants.

“He did a beautiful job for a lot cheaper,’ said Santos, who is self-employed.Although medical tourism remains a miniscule part of the healthcare fi eld, it is nevertheless a very real option for patients who, like Santos, may have little or no insurance coverage or high deductibles to pay.

Because of the more modest cost of living in countries such as Colombia, Brazil and Mexico, as well as the lower malpractice insurance costs, medical and dental procedures can usually be obtained for much less.

“The United States has excellent dental care, but the real problem is cost,” said Dr. Marlon Becerra.

“Good dentalservices can be obtained at a much lower cost in Colombia, sometimes at seven or eight times less than the cost of comparable procedures in the United States.” In 2012, Becerra treated 550 patients from out the country, many of them American residents.

The $15 billion, fi ve-million-patient medical tourism market is expected to gather even more patient interest during the growing pains of the new healthcare reform.

“Costs for insurance and out-of-pocket expenses are going to increase, at least at fi rst, so more patients will want to check out the option of having procedures done out of the country,” said Freddy Lehner, president of the Melbourne-based Meditours Colombia, one of more than 300 medical travel companies currently in operation.

Lehner’s company specializes in hooking patients throughout the United States with health care providers in Colombia, primarily through Clinica Colsanitas, which represents four hospitals and 56 clinics in Colombia. Meditours Colombia assists patients with all the trip logistics for procedures that include bariatric surgery, plastic surgery, fertility treatment and dental and ocular issues, among others.

Medical practices that welcome tourist patients represent a spectrum of specialties, from orthopedics and cardiovascular issues to weight loss surgery and health screenings.

“Insurance and out-of-pocket costs are so high in the United States that patients are increasingly
choosing this option,” said Lehner.

“We have excellent doctors in Colombia, many of whom have studied in the United States. Most of them are bilingual.” In Becerra’s practice, the majority of medical tourists seek dental implants.

“The cost of implants in the United States is very high,” said Becerra.

“Patients also seek us for esthetic services and root canals, which, again, are very costly in the U.S.”

In addition to dental services, Colombia is gaining a good reputation among U.S. medical tourists for its affordable cosmetic surgery. Eighteen percent of patients at plastic surgeon’s Dr. Absalon Aldana Granados’s offi ce in Cali, for example, arrive from the United States.

“Most of them are looking for hair implants, esthetic repairs, breast augmentation and liposculpture. We encourage patients to take extra time to get to know our city and our country.” As medical tourism evolves, practices are adding services to meet the needs of out-of-country patients.

“These days we pick up the patient at the airport, we arrange for lodging and car rentals and we even provide them with information on sightseeing and good restaurants,” said Becerra.

“In some ways, we have become guides to help the tourist patients feel at home.” Of course, obtaining medical assistance far from home is not without issues. “The major problem is guarantee,” said Dr. Liliana Perez with Pelican Dental Care in Brevard and Indian River Counties.

“The majority of patients look for prosthodontics work, like crowns, bridges, or implants. These types of dental procedures require time to set up and follow-up with the dentist. There could be some issues that can occur that are involved with root canals and periodontal problems.

In some cases, it could be something like a fracture of the porcelain material that the dentist uses. When the patient has a complaint about the treatment, the only solution for the patient is to go back to that country, because it can be diffi cult for a dentist to solve these issues when it wasn’t done here. The patient has to pay the consequences, because they have nobody here that can be responsible for the dental procedures.”

Perez suggests that patients fi rst check U.S. insurance companies that may be able to help with more affordable prices or to investigate with individual dental practices for possible payment plans.

Selecting the right physician is critical for the success of any medical procedure, but even more so when the doctorlives in a different country. Accreditation can be a good gauge of determining the quality of care. More than 400 hospitals around the world are accredited by the Joint Commission International, the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organization’s international affi liate agency. Board certifi cation of the specifi c physician is another good starting point in helping to make a decision.

“You need to check out thoroughly where the procedures will take place and to look very closely at the doctor’s credentials,” said Becerra.

“If possible, ask for references from former patients. You want everything to turn out perfectly, because this is serious business that needs to be done just right.”

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