Medical tourism continues to attract tens of thousands of visitors to Costa Rica every year. The country’s proximity to the United States, well-trained health professionals and three hospitals nationally accredited by the Joint Commission International (JCI) – an organization that develops health care standards around the world – make it an ideal destination for patients seeking quality care.
Also tipping the scales in Costa Rica’s favor is its reputation as a renowned tourist destination. And when it comes to prices for dental and medical services, Costa Rica offers vast savings compared to the United States, with procedures like heart valve replacements costing less than a fifth of what they run in the U.S.
According to the Council for International Promotion of Costa Rica Medicine (PROMED), dental procedures continue to attract the most visitors each year, drawing 36 percent of Costa Rica’s medical tourists annually. Elective surgeries follow at 22 percent, with medical treatments and cosmetic surgery drawing 14 and 12 percent of foreign patients, respectively.
PROMED is in the process of conducting a 2010 survey of providers, hospitals and clinics in the medical tourism industry, the results of which should be released in February. Although the organization is still waiting for information from some providers, Massimo Manzi, executive director of PROMED, said the council expects to see a 10 percent increase in medical tourism visitors over the previous year.
An estimated 30,000 medical tourists came to Costa Rica in 2009, Manzi said. Patients from the United States made up 90 percent, or 27,000, of those tourists. Canadians accounted for 5 percent, and visitors from other Central American countries – and a small number of Europeans – made up the remaining 5 percent.
Manzi said PROMED also considers patients’ traveling companions when tallying the number of visitors drawn in through medical tourism. Although traveling companions spend less than the patients themselves, they are important to take into account, Manzi said.
“To those 30,000 [medical tourists], at least one companion for each person must be added,” he said. “So, in 2009, 60,000 visitors came to Costa Rica because of medical tourism.”
Heather Wilson, marketing director of medical tourism facilitator Costa Rica MD Services, said the actual number of medical tourists is most likely larger than the official statistic.
“We have so many people who come for these services, and they’re just not counted because they don’t go through a facilitator, or they go to a private clinic that’s not within one of the JCI hospitals,” Wilson said. “I think the only way that they could maybe even try to measure that number is to put something on the immigration form when they come in through the airports.”
Wilson said Costa Rica’s three JCI-accredited hospitals give the country an edge over its competitors. Those three – Clínica Bíblica, La Católica and CIMA hospitals, all in the country’s capital – offer services ranging from knee or hip replacements to face-lifts, breast augmentations and colonoscopies (TT, Oct. 15, 2010).
Wilson said about 60 percent of her company’s patients come to Costa Rica for dental procedures, while 40 percent receive medical treatment. Orthopedic surgeries top the list of medical services received. Hysterectomies for women and prostate cancer exams for men are popular as well. The company also brings in many people for a combination of dental treatments and health checkups.
“In many cases in the United States, insurance companies won’t pay for preventive care,” Wilson said.
Costa Rica MD Services gets many inquiries about aesthetic surgeries, but Wilson said lower prices in competing countries sometimes drive patients away from Costa Rica.
“We get probably just as many cosmetic plastic surgery inquiries as we do dental, but a lot of them are not coming because Costa Rica is just not as competitive as some other areas like Mexico. So, we actually lost a lot of patients just based on price.”
Despite the competition, medical tourism continues to be a major contributor to the nation’s economy. And while Costa Rica does not rank as high in medical-tourist volume as countries like Thailand or India – which pull in 1 million and 350,000 patients per year, respectively – the country is regarded as one of the best in terms of destination and beauty, Manzi said.
The Price Is Right: Comparison of Approximate Costs for Medical Procedures
Angioplasty Up to $57,000 $14,000
Heart bypass Up to $144,000 $26,000
Heart valve replacement Up to $170,000 $31,000
Knee replacement Up to $50,000 $12,000
Hip replacement Up to $43,000 $13,000
Hysterectomy Up to $15,000 $6,000
Face-lift Up to $15,000 $6,500
Breast implants Up to $10,000 $4,000
Rhinoplasty (nose job) Up to $8,000 $6,000
Dental implants $2,000-10,000 (including crown) $800-1,100 implant, $700-900 crown implant,
Source: medicaltourism.com (2010)