Puerto Rico is growing in popularity as a medical tourism destination to get medical treatments for less. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

New destination for medical tourism: Puerto Rico

A growing number of Americans are looking farther south than Mexico, and a bit further east, for their “medical tourism” needs.

Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory in the Caribbean, has become a top destination of choice for those attempting to bypass the high costs of healthcare in the United States.

According to the Medical Tourism Association, a global non-profit organization raising awareness on medical tourism, Puerto Rico is joining the game of vying for the billions of dollars spent by people seeking cheaper healthcare abroad.

“Puerto Rico is becoming a prime destination for American medical tourists,” said Renee-Marie Stephano, President of the Medical Tourism Association based out of West Palm Beach, FL.

“Since Puerto Rico is just gaining momentum, it cannot be compared to other countries, but it could catch up very fast,” said Stephano.

With healthcare costs in the U.S. increasing at a rate of 6-percent a year, and insurance coverage decreasing, Latin America has always been a viable solution for Americans looking to save money.

“I saved a lot of money,” said Lorena Romero, with a sigh of relief.

Romero spent two weeks in Puerto Rico on a medical tourism trip through Satori World Medical. The company gives employers the option to send people internationally for their healthcare needs.

And in dire need of a hysterectomy, and trying to avoid high hospital fees in the United States, Romero chose Puerto Rico.

“Everything was paid for. I have no extra medical expenses from that trip,” she said.

“It was either Puerto Rico, Mexico or Turkey,” said Romero. “I decided Puerto Rico because it would be closer to the U.S. and that way my mom wouldn’t be more worried that we were in some foreign country.”

“It was a wonderful experience. The doctor contacted me months in advance, and let me know step-by-step what was going to happen,” said Romero.

“The nurses would speak in Spanish, but when I responded in English, they responded back in English.”

According to the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions, an organization that has monitored medical travel abroad, an estimated 1.6 million Americans would receive medical services abroad in 2012, with a growth rate of 35-percent per year. That’s over 2.1 billion dollars a year spent on healthcare services in other countries, costing the United States billions of dollars in lost revenue.

Countries like Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Brazil and Venezuela, have supported the American demand for cheaper healthcare abroad. Procedures can include anything from orthopedic surgery on hips, knees, back and spine, to cosmetic procedures like breast implants and face-lifts.

Other top destinations for international medical tourists include India, Thailand and other Asian countries.

According to the International Federation of Health Plans, a hip replacement in the U.S. on average would cost around $38,017. In Argentina, that same procedure would cost $3,589. A CT head scan in the U.S. goes for a commercial average of $510 or more. In Chile, that same procedure will cost around $184, and in countries like India, can be as low as $43.

In Puerto Rico, procedures like orthopedic surgery, cardiovascular disease treatment, oncology, neurology procedures, and many more, can be done for 60 to 80-percent less than in the United States, and with the same standards.

As a U.S. territory, all hospitals are required to comply with the U.S. infrastructure standards and be staffed by board certified physicians.

“It is American healthcare at much more affordable prices,” said Stephano.

The cost for supporting the infrastructure of healthcare in Puerto Rico is almost 70 to 80-percent less according to the Medical Tourism Association. The cost of labor for doctors and nurses, healthcare supplies, and equipment, all contribute to Puerto Rico’s lower prices.

Travel to Puerto Rico is also fast and simple for United States Citizens.  U.S. Citizens don’t require visa or a passport; just a government issued identification card.

Since most medical procedures abroad are outpatient, which can include anything from breast implants to dentistry, the patient can be sent home within hours of the surgery, making farther destinations a bit more complicated.

Puerto Rico doesn’t have that problem.

“When traveling to a medical facility away from home, patients look for three qualities – ease of travel, value and high quality of services, and a safe leisure tourism haven. Puerto Rico has all three,” wrote the Puerto Rico Tourism Company on their website.

Many tourism agencies in Puerto Rico have been attempting to take advantage of that ease, creating travel packages for potential American patients. They offer activities like excursions, shopping, and cultural events, all to be enjoyed before or after the procedure.

“At the present there are over 70 hospital facilities, some that have partnerships with hotels,” writes the company.

“There are also six approved projects that integrate hotel and hospital facilities.”

One of those facilities is the 104-room Hyatt place, with the El Tropical Casino, that sits adjacent to the San Pablo HIMA Bayamon Hospital.

“The Puerto Rico Tourism Company has also provided training and presentations for members of the industry, including hotels and hospitals,” said Luis Rivera-Marin, Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company.

“These efforts are meant to create awareness of this market, and bring members of the industry together to begin a collaborative effort in promoting PR as a medical tourism destination.”

Despite some of the obvious advantages, many U.S. based doctors and lawyers continue to raise red flags about medical travel abroad.

For Jed Kurzban, an attorney in Miami, FL specializing in medical malpractice, he’s witnessed how medical travel abroad can play out of favor for the “medical tourist.”

“I think it’s always more dangerous to go abroad because it limits your ability to recover (money) if there is wrong done to you,” said Kurzban.

He says it’s not uncommon to have patients seek malpractice abroad, and they usually come up short.

“If they are a out-of-country doctor, it’s very difficult to list them on a verdict form,” which would place them at fault for malpractice. “So what happens is you end up not being able to recover that money, which is necessary many times for future medical treatments,” said Kurzban.

“But I certainly understand why people do go abroad because health insurance is so expensive.”

For Lorena Romero, she says it was worth her risk.

“Just take the chance,” Said Romero. “At this point, nobody has the extra money anymore to give to the hospitals. Medical care is just really outrageously expensive. I just say why not. Why not do it?”

And as the price of healthcare and insurance in the United States continues to rise, Puerto Rico, and many Latin American countries, will continue to accept those looking for other options.

New destination for medical tourism: Puerto Rico  alexpena news NBC Latino News

Alex Peña is a freelance foreign correspondent currently covering Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Previously, Pena was based in Nairobi, Kenya covering East Africa for Voice of America TV, and has also filed stories from the Middle East, including the border of Jordan and Syria. He graduated from the journalism program at Florida Gulf Coast University in December 2011.

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