When Should You Travel for Health Care?

The answer depends on your specific situation. Here are five considerations.

March 26, 2023

When someone needs health care, they must decide where to get it. Depending on what kind of treatment they need and where they live, they may have great options nearby. Or, they may decide to travel a longer distance—sometimes by plane—to visit an academic medical center, specialized hospital, or a particular doctor.

If you or a loved one is evaluating your treatment options, here are five things to consider:

  1. What is "local" for you? Some people will drive a long distance to see a friend, but are reluctant to drive to a doctor's appointment. If there's a great doctor in your region, seeing them is worth the effort. If it’s a long drive, invite a friend or family member along, and if you’re undergoing treatment, check with the doctor before planning to drive yourself home.
  2. Volume (not size) matters. Studies show that the number of times a physician or hospital performs a complex surgical procedure is associated with better patient outcomes. Regardless of where you go for your care, ensure both the hospital and the physician have performed the procedure many times before.
  3. Rare or complex issues often call for specialized institutions. Rare diseases have low volume by definition. Consequently, few physicians or centers have the requisite experience or equipment to treat these conditions. This means that patients who live in rural communities must travel to see these providers. If you have a rare condition, consider traveling to get the best care.
  4. It never hurts to get a second (or third) opinion. Healthcare consumers don’t always have the technical knowledge to make informed choices about their own care. That’s why we turn to doctors, who study and practice for years. But don’t make your decision based on the first doctor you visit. Get a second opinion. It’s essential to talk to another physician (or two!) when the health issue is complex.
  5. There’s no place like home. Having loved ones around can benefit patients mentally and physically. The considerations above may point you toward a plane ride, but if you are on the fence, it may make sense to go to a community hospital instead. Staying close to home, especially for long-duration care, allows your friends and family to participate in your recovery.

If you are facing a decision about whether or not to travel for health care, an expert health advisor can help you arrange for a second opinion, explore your options, and make an informed decision. They can also help patients who are unable to travel, or who prefer to stay close to home, find the best care available in their area. If you need help finding great care, or you have other questions about navigating the healthcare system, don’t hesitate to reach out.

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