Healing Holidays – Medical Tourism at its Best

For centuries, people have been traveling far and wide to be healed and yet today with all the information available at the fingertips, patients are still wary of trusting their health in the hands of a doctor thousands of miles away. However with the numbers of uninsured pegged at 47 million and the numbers of those not covered by dental insurance at 120 million, the medical scenario in US is grim with no end in sight.

Increasing medical costs and decreasing health benefits, is taking a heavy toll on those with either no insurance or a limited cover. At an age when health benefits are most sought, people struggle to stay healthy instead, for fear of rising medical bills. More often than not, the decision to stay healthy is taken right out of their hands and lands them in emergency rooms, where they are taken care of for the moment, but a lifetime of medical bills choke them to death. Even for those who live under a false security blanket that they are insured, having paid fat premiums all their productive years on the assurance that they will be provided quality health care when they need it the most, were in for a rude shock when news broke out that California Blue Cross, the state’s largest health insurance providers has been found guilty of systematically dropping policy holders, when they become sick or pregnant.

In a scenario like this, most often they are forced to seek out alternatives and one of the most attractive on the horizon in traveling to other countries, which promise the same medical attention if not better at 1/10th of the costs as in a hospital in the US. What however finally clinches the deal for the patient, to board the plane and travel 10,000 miles for the very first time in their lives, is a promise of a holiday in an exotic locale thrown in as part of the healing process.

The promise of a world class medical treatment at any of the Joint Commission International (JCI) accredited hospitals in India, China, Thailand, Philippines and others, an extended comfortable stay for the patient and a family member in hospital rooms which offer the luxuries of a five-star hotel room and the availability of a 24 hour registered nurse beats the odds out of treatments here. Besides the crippling costs, the hospitals budgeting needs here means shorter and shorter post-operative stays, which does not bode well with the elderly and the pregnant women.

Though over the last ten years, medical tourism in these countries is booming, thanks to half a million foreign patients to India alone till last year, there are still several millions who are hesitant to take the first step and research the information needed to put their mind and body at rest with the medical options available elsewhere. For those not so discerning patients, Global Health Care Facilitators have stepped in to find low cost, yet quality health care. One of the only three organizations promoting medical tourism here in the United States, Global HCF is just a click away from making a smooth transition to a hospital on foreign soil. The organization based in Cookeville, Tennessee not only helps partner the patient with the right doctor, it also makes travel arrangements, takes care of accommodation and food with a consolidated bill at the end of a comfortable healing holiday.

To those cynics who believe in stories of botched surgeries floating around, Dr. Bill Thomas, the brain behind Global HCF, a seasoned traveler himself says that though life-saving medical procedures like heart surgeries, cancer treatment and elective surgeries like dental implants and cosmetic surgery cost as less at 1/10th of the costs of a procedure in the US, it is not because of a lack of expertise, rather a lack of malpractice suits and high administrative costs, which has crippled the health industry here. A surgery which would cost 50,000 dollars and above here in hospital charges alone can be performed for as less as 10,000 dollars all inclusive of medical costs and a holiday package, a realistic amount which can be put together with savings and loans. Global HCF takes care to see that they partner with JCI certified hospitals. In most cases the doctors have been trained in USA and in Europe and have impeccable career records, with less than one percent failure rates.

Countries like India which are actively promoting medical tourism are increasingly seeking JCI certification, to instill faith in the medical tourists coming to them, very well realizing that the publicity generated by one botched surgery could de-rail a burgeoning industry, expected to jump 30 percent every year. Besides the hospitals equipped with the latest medically advanced diagnostic equipments, Indian pharmaceutical companies too meet stringent requirements of the US Food and Drug administration. Medical advancements have meant that Indian doctors can now perform the hip re-surfacing surgery among others where the damaged bone is scraped away and replaced with chrome alloy, an operation which costs less and causes less post-operative trauma than the traditional hip replacement procedure done in the US.

To those who refuse to believe that anything could surpass the medical treatment available here in the US, there are statistics to show that the doctors in these developing countries, have far more expertise and a higher success rate in handling complicated life-saving surgeries, than the doctors here in the US, thanks just to the sheer volume of surgeries they handle on a daily basis. Besides in most cases, treatment here in the US is hardly an option for those with little or no insurance. In such a scenario, if traveling to an exotic destination would mean that they can be healed and lead a productive life post-surgery, instead of wasting away for want of expensive, medical care, then it certainly seems worth taking that one chance.

Panama’s Health Tourism Boom

A new kind of tourism is sweeping into Panama, but these visitors are not just coming for sun and fun. Offering first-rate health care at cut-rate prices, Panama is attracting the latest kind of traveler: the medical tourist.

Medical tourism is a rapidly growing, multi-billion dollar worldwide industry. Countries like India and Thailand have long been attracting patients from developed countries looking to escape the high prices and long waits at home, providing high-quality health care at a fraction of the price.

Panama is one of the latest countries to emerge on the health tourism scene, offering US-trained doctors, state-of-the-art infrastructure and equipment, plus a distinct advantage — proximity to North America. With as many as 45 million Americans uninsured, and Canadians waiting up to two years for critical procedures, many are looking south for alternatives.

“The demand is very strong, and we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface,” says Rudy Rupak, president of Planet Hospital, a medical tourism agency researching qualified doctors and hospitals in countries around the world to perform procedures for clients who cannot afford, or wait, in their home countries.

His company recently added Panama to its list of destinations, thanks to the newly-opened Punta Pacifica hospital, an affiliate of the prestigious US hospital, John Hopkins Medicine International.

“We look for doctors who are educated in the USA, or other excellent institutions abroad such as in Canada, the UK or Europe,” explains Mr Rupak, “as well as peer review, publications over the years in their area of specialization, and patient interviews.”

“I see Panama as a strategic place, with a good location, just a five or six hour flight from the US. But the main factors are quality of doctors and the presence of a US hospital,” he says.

Add to that a beautiful setting for recovery, personalized care, short wait times and price tags 40% to 70% less than those in the US — and the allure is clear.

Dr Richard Ford, medical coordinator of Pana-Health, a group of doctors specializing in medical tourism to Panama, estimates tourists spent in approximately $5 million last year on procedures such as cosmetic surgery, in-vitro fertilization, orthopedic prostheses, dentistry and laser eye surgery.

Despite the growing trade, the Panamanian government is not yet tracking health tourism numbers, but Dr Ford says they are on the rise, pegging 2006 figures at more than one thousand, a sharp increase over previous years.

“[That] is about 35 per cent more than the previous year and 80 per cent more than the year before,” he estimates.

While these numbers might seem small, Rudy Rupak believes they are about to explode, with many health officials and policy makers in the US calling for Medicare to pay for procedures abroad, to relieve a soon-to-be overburdened health care system.

Debra Lipson, a senior health researcher speaking at an AARP (American Association of Retired Persons) forum, said outsourcing medical care could amount to big savings in the US.

According to one study, she said, “the US could save $1.4 billion annually if only one in ten US patients receives treatment for 15 low-risk medical procedures abroad.”

Many of those who migrated from Latin America are returning to their home countries to retire, she pointed out, also taking advantage of ‘more affordable aged care support and services’.

“My husband’s parents recently moved back to Panama, after spending 15 years in the US,” she recounted. “They are still among the “young-old” — not yet out of their sixties. But my mother-in-law has a neurological condition that requires constant vigilance and I sleep better at night knowing that she has reliable, affordable care.”