For many people, the idea of traveling to Israel invokes images of sacred synagogues, trips to the Western Wall and moments of personal religious reflection.
For others, it calls to mind hospital beds, surgeries and doctors.
Medical tourism — in which patients travel to other countries for medical procedures — has, in some form, been around “for centuries,” said Jonathan Edelheit, CEO of the Medical Tourism Association, an organization that helps promote international medical travel.
But over the past five years, advances in technology and medicine combined with growing health care costs in the United States have caused interest in the practice to skyrocket, with no signs of slowing down.
“It will only become more common in the future,” Edelheit said.
Procedures performed in Israel cost, on average, 50 to 70 percent less than they do in the United States. Bypass surgery in Israel costs approximately $35,000 — in the United States, the same procedure runs about $120,000.
For the more than 15 million Americans who are unemployed and the 46 million without health insurance (as of 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau), those kinds of savings may be the only impetus necessary.
“Uninsured patients are looking for good and quality medical treatment all over the world, for a better price,” said Natalie Steiner, vice president of marketing for Global Health Israel, an organization that works to promote medical tourism in Israel.
Israeli doctors, hospitals and universities have also become highly respected both in the medical community and among patients, through the development of new technology and Israel’s state-of-the-art facilities.
“The reputation of the Israeli doctor is quite good all over the world,” said Eliezer Hod, marketing development director for the Israel Ministry of Tourism.
And as patients begin to experience success, word travels quickly through the community. “People often learn about medical tourism through word of mouth,” Hod said.
The vast increase in online access to information about medicine through the Internet has also played a big role in driving patients overseas in recent years.
Many people already rely on the Web for medical information when they can’t reach their provider, don’t have health insurance or are simply looking to become more informed. With Web sites making international doctors seem as close as your living room, trust builds and the idea of seeing a doctor in another country seems less questionable.
“The Internet is very strong in promoting medical tourism. I believe that this tool will become even more strong in coming years,” Steiner said.
To arrange for procedures, patients are connected directly with a specialist or hospital after contacting a tourism office or an organization such as the Medical Tourism Association. They will either be provided with a medical tourism facilitator, who acts as a middleman between patient and doctor, or have their contact information given directly to Israeli providers.
“We send the proposal to a few people in Israel who specialize in these operations, then they respond directly to the client,” Hod said.
For the most part, facilitators do not charge patients, but rather work off commissions from Israeli hospitals.
Both public and private hospitals in Israel accept international patients, with some, such as Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem and Assuta Medical Center in Tel Aviv, making a concerted effort to recruit patients from all over the globe.
Services available to foreign patients encompass nearly every specialization of medicine, ranging from cancer treatment and orthopedics to cosmetic surgery and weight loss procedures, like gastric bypass. Some of the most commonly sought procedures among Americans traveling to Israel are oncology and heart surgery.
But the most popular procedure, and the one that tourism officials and representatives hope to push to the United States market, is in vitro fertilization (IVF).
Unlike most countries, the Israeli government covers IVF procedures for two children for couples who are having difficulty conceiving. Their success rate is, by some measures, as much as 15 percent higher than other parts of the world. And the cost difference is staggering: an IVF cycle in Israel costs between $3,000 and $4,000, as compared to $16,000 to $20,000 in the United States.
“Because Israel provides IVF free to residents, they have much more expertise and better outcomes than other countries,” Edelheit said.
The full length of a patient’s stay in Israel varies depending on the procedure, but is generally about two weeks, Edelheit says. Some patients may opt to stay in a “recovery resort,” a place designed specifically to cater to those who are recently post-operative.
Through these extended stays, and the fact that most patients do not travel alone, the benefits of medical tourism extend beyond the patient.
“It has a positive effect on the local economy,” Edelheit said.
Adds Steiner, “The money that we get from medical tourists we can use to develop our medicine, to buy more medical equipment and to become more” technologically advanced.
Despite a thriving medical community and what looks to be a bright future for medical tourism, there are still reminders of the political tension in the area. A brochure released from Israel’s Office of Tourism in Los Angeles that focuses on pediatric care offers the following description of its services: “As the only purely rehabilitation hospital in Israel catering for children, Alyn specialized in rehabilitation
techniques for conditions such as trauma and head injuries from terrorist attacks. … ”
Medical tourism is not currently covered by most insurance companies in the United States, but some are looking to incorporate the option into benefit packages.
“Companies that have a lot of Jewish [employees] or Israeli people have a reason to offer medical treatment in Israel,” Steiner said.
Technological advances will, she adds, shape the future of medical tourism, as doctors and patients become more comfortable communicating via the Internet and as health care becomes global.
“I believe that in few years you will find consultations via the Internet,” Steiner said.
For now, American patients will have to be content with capitalizing on the benefits of medical tourism – and maybe get a vacation out of it, too.
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