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Growing Number of Americans Traveling Abroad for Medical Procedures

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Aired 4/19/09

For years, Americans have come to Mexico to save money on prescription drugs. But lately, a growing number of Americans have been going south of the border to have surgery at a discount. Mexico, Thailand, and even Singapore are becoming popular destinations for medical tourists. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.

About a mile and a half south of the U.S. Mexico border, a group of patients sit in a hospital waiting room. All of these patients are Americans. And all of them are waiting to see Dr. Pedro Kuri. He specializes in a type of weight-loss surgery called the lap band procedure. It involves inserting an adjustable band around the upper part of the stomach. It’s the least invasive kind of obesity surgery.

The whole operation takes less than an hour, and patients can go home the next day. Still, Florida resident Gayla Parent is nervous about it.

Parent: I’ve never had surgery of any kind, so this for me was a very scary decision to make, but my health requires I do something, so that’s why I’m here.

Parent says she considered having the surgery done back home.

Parent: There’s a clinic in my town that does lap band surgery, but my insurance in the United States was not going to cover this, so the estimate was between $24,000 and $30,000.

Dr. Kuri charges $9,000. And that includes transportation to and from the airport, a couple of nights in a hotel, and all hospital charges.

Kuri says he performed his first lap band surgery nine years ago. For a while, he saw only Mexican patients. Today he has two different websites, and an eight-person team who represents him in the U.S. Kuri says thanks to Americans, he’s probably the busiest lap band surgeon in the world. He thinks his experience is a big draw.

Kuri: Most of my patients - they come and they say a doctor wants that I do the surgery with him, but he has done only 40 or 50. And, I’m over 2,800 cases now. We are doing now, a hundred a month.

Whether it’s lap band surgery in Mexico, or a knee replacement in Malaysia, a growing number of Americans are going to foreign countries for medical care. In fact, one hospital in Thailand says it attracts 55,000 American patients a year.

For the uninsured the savings can be enormous. For example, coronary bypass surgery can cost $75,000 in the U.S. But you can get it for around $11,000 in India.

Scherger: I think it’s alarming, I think it’s a wake up call, I think we’re going to have to look at our prices and our whole cost structure here in America.

Family practitioner Joseph Scherger is on the board of the San Diego County Medical Society.

Scherger: American healthcare has not had true competitive price pressures. There have been price reductions as a result of managed care, for example. But actual competitive price pressures, like in automobiles, what Detroit had to face, when it was hit with Japan, and Korea, and other places in the world. I think American medicine in a competitive market is going to have those kinds of price pressures.

But price isn’t the only factor. Quality is just as important. And those involved in healthcare in foreign countries know they have to compete on both fronts to attract Americans.

Take Hospital Angeles in Tijuana, for instance. It opened earlier this year. Hospital director Paulo Yberri says his $70 million facility is as well equipped as any in the business.

Yberri: We are a 116-bed hospital. We are equipped with 12 operating rooms. We have a step-down ICU unit. We have anything from a regular x-ray, to digital fluoroscopy, cat scan, MRI, nuclear medicine.

Yberri says all of the patients’ rooms are private. There are even 14 suites, one of which has its own terrace. What the hospital doesn’t have right now is a lot of customers. But Yberri says he wants Southern Californians to know they have some options.

Yberri: There’s quality hospitals, quality physicians and surgeons, and technology here in Tijuana at a more reasonable pricing.

Some insurance companies have started to include foreign hospitals in their networks. And there’s even a bill pending in West Virginia, that would offer state workers first class airfare and cash bonuses to get hospital care overseas. 

To be sure, the training and experience of doctors in other countries can be extremely variable. And if complications arise, patients may have to get treated back home.

Still, experts believe the sky’s the limit for medical tourism. After all, healthcare costs in the U.S. continue to rise. And the number of uninsured is up to 46.5 million people….and counting.  Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News. 

 

 

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