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Medical Tourism Business Takes Root in San Diego

Audio

Aired 6/17/09

Today, the U.S. Government estimates that health care costs account for 16 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. The high cost of medical treatment may be the number one issue in health care reform. And it's already caused some patients to go elsewhere to save money on major operations.

Today, the U.S. Government estimates that health care costs account for 16 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. The high cost of medical treatment may be the number one issue in health care reform. And it's already caused some patients to go elsewhere to save money on major operations.

People who promote medical tourism say the popular expression is a misnomer because it's not really tourism. Steven Lash is founder of a San Diego company called Satori World Medical, which arranges operations overseas. He says he prefers the expression "medical travel."

"We really think that 'medical tourism' demeans the seriousness and the quality of the experience," he says. "Because you're not climbing Machu Picchu when you're going through one of our procedures."

Lash says when you go overseas for surgery there's another mountain you don't have to climb: the towering summit of U.S. health care costs. Lash is part of an industry that's grown up around the need for affordable health care. The costs of health care in the U.S. are so high that American patients can save tens of thousands of dollars by getting an operation overseas. Americans travel for coronary bypasses, hip replacements, shoulder and spine surgery and bariatric surgery to name a few. Lash says even when the cost of airfare and his profit margin are figured in, the savings are between 40 and 80 percent.

"If you leave from San Diego, a coronary artery bypass graff, at our lowest cost hospital, is $21,000 compared to the average domestic paid is about $80,000. And then the median, if you throw out the lowest, the median price for the rest of our network is $26,000," he says.

Lash says his goal is to strike deals with insurance companies so they offer medical travel as part of their coverage. Robert Zirkelbach is a spokesman for the trade organization America's Health Insurance Plans, AHIP. He says he has some concerns about medical travel.

"Health plans don't want to send patients anywhere unless they know that the care being provided is as safe as possible and is of high quality."

The countries that receive medical tourists include India, Thailand, Singapore, Belgium and England. Companies that provide medical travel acknowledge that high standards of care and sanitation may not be the rule in some countries.

Zirkelbach adds, "Another issue that needs to be addressed is how do you insure continuity of care."

The question is: When you get surgery in a foreign country, who follows up to make sure you're okay after you get home? Lash says follow-up care is part of the package at Satori World Medical. But Dr. Ted Mazer, past president of the San Diego County Medical Society, says handing off your patient to another doctor is questionable medicine.

"It's like me doing surgery and leaving town and hoping somebody takes care of my post-operative patient if something goes wrong. That's something I don't want for my patients and something I avoid when I'm planning a vacation," says Mazer.

Companies that arrange medical travel say they can insure good care by cherry-picking the best hospitals in places like India. As to the possibility of malpractice, patients need to understand their ability to sue a foreign hospital might be severely limited.

Wouder Hoeberechts is the CEO of WorldMed Assist, a medical tourism company in Concord, California. He says patients that have concerns about quality or medical malpractice should know they are a very coveted market.

"These foreign hospitals, they are very keen on attracting American patients. So they will go out of their way to send a U.S. patient home very happy."

So far, Hoeberechts says his customers tend to be either uninsured or under-insured people who would be forced to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket. The prospect of arranging medical travel deals though insurance providers is just getting started. Hoeberechts says some insurance companies have pilot programs. Zirkelbach, with America's Health Insurance Plans, will only say the industry is taking a close look at it. Dr. Ted Mazer says at the very least, going overseas for treatment is a reflection of two major problems with American medicine. Cost and accessibility.

Comments

Avatar for user 'Eggface'

Eggface | June 17, 2009 at 7:22 p.m. ― 5 years, 6 months ago

I've had three surgeries in Mexico. All were wonderful experiences. RNY Gastric Bypass in Ensenada and 2 rounds of major Plastic Surgery in Tijuana. I was treated like a queen. Wonderful Dr's, hospital staff but like ANY country you need to do your research. I'd recommend my Dr's to my dearest relative.

Michelle
www.theworldaccordingtoeggface.com

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