For several years now, American healthcare consumers, including many from other western industrialized nations, have heard about elective surgeries being performed in lesser-developed nations and due to cost and denial of coverage by health insurance providers have opted to go there. However, surgeries in the past were truly elective and not medically necessary procedures that largely consisted of face-lifts, tummy tucks and gastric bypasses for cosmetic purposes.
But just in the past two years, American patients are being wooed to make decisions on serious medically necessary surgeries due to their fears of excessive healthcare costs. And the decision involves traveling abroad primarily to India and Thailand in order to receive such hospital care which they require.
For those self-insured, underinsured, or not insured at all, the desperation of receiving medical care without sacrificing homes or assets in the process is plausible, since costs of similar procedures in South Asia range from 75% – 80% less than in the United States. But now U.S. based corporations have entered the arena as well by encouraging employees to go to India and Thailand via cash incentives, free airfare and hotel stays with no co-pays due on the final bill.
Yet, just as with any large purchase consumers must look beyond the fancy advertisements and read the fine print with a Buyer Beware mentality. Americans have become quite adept at learning what to look for when dealing with car dealerships when purchasing an automobile and with computer retailers when purchasing a new computer. But it has taken many years to educate consumers as to their rights and protections under the law and what to do when something does go wrong.
The term “medical tourism” has been inaccurately applied to what is essentially the offshoring of patients of the U.S. healthcare system to foreign countries, in order to appeal to potential customers who are really medical patients. The term was invented by the media and it stuck and is now being used as a marketing tool. Deceptive in its concept, it is an implication that a patient can go sightseeing before or after a serious hospital procedure in that foreign country. But for those who are more scrupulous it remains difficult to get the necessary information needed to make a reasoned decision on whether to have surgery performed, let alone halfway around the world.
There are now organizations being touted as medical tourism agencies that have cropped up throughout the U.S. in order to facilitate such care overseas for individual patients as well as to serve as a clearinghouse for corporations wishing to outsource their employees’ healthcare with them in tow. These groups include MedSolution, GlobalChoice Healthcare, IndUShealth, Planet Healthcare and Med Retreat, to name just a few.
And with more and more corporations adding select foreign hospitals as Preferred Providers to their employees’ health insurance plans, medical tourism companies handle the paperwork and travel arrangements for their employees. Other countries of destination include Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines, Panama, Mexico, China, Malaysia, Singapore, Turkey and South Africa.
However, it is at this point that the patient needs to start their own due diligence. There is usually a requirement by most U.S. healthcare insurance providers for patients to get second opinions for most complicated surgeries in the U.S., but not so for offshore surgeries. And the list of surgeries which are being sent offshore are indeed medically necessary but confusingly being reported to the media as elective. But you can determine for yourself whether or not the following are elective procedures: cardiac bypass, cardiac stent implantation, cardiac angioplasty, knee replacement, hip replacement, mastectomy, hysterectomy, chemotherapy, eye surgery, vascular surgery, among others.
And as the medical tourism agency is only an intermediary between the client and the hospital as well as between hotels and airlines they do not provide any liability in the event that there is a medical complication or there is a mishap at the destination hospital. Furthermore, there are fees which could arise not documented by an employer nor agency which could require additional expenses upon the patient’s arrival. And as a conduit between patient and hospital, the medical tourism business remains an unregulated industry in the U.S., without licensing requirements and with most managed by non-medical personnel.
Similarly, and unbeknownst to most U.S. patients is that the healthcare industry in India is highly unregulated. It was only in 2006 that regulations regarding the medical device industry, which includes surgical devices such as cardiac stents and orthopedic implants for use in hip and knee replacements, was mandated. Such call for regulation from the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) only came about as the result of discovered defective drug eluting cardiac stents in 2004. And although hospitals have the option of applying for accreditation through the Joint International Commission established in 1999, a subsidiary of the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, used for hospitals in the U.S., there is no such requirement to do so.
As of 2006 there are five hospitals in India which have JCI accreditation, renewable every three years. They include the three facilities of the Apollo Hospital group, the Shruff Eye Hospital and the Wockhardt Hospital. The Bumrungrad International in Bangkok is Thailand’s sole JCI hospital. Singapore has over a dozen JCI hospitals however, and the Philippines has one. But the JCI accreditation only applies primarily to hospital management which although includes procedures to reduce risk of infection and disease and to ensure patient safety, it has no jurisdiction over the actual physicians performing surgical procedures.
The patient is provided limited information other than an introductory phone call to the intended physician and having medical records electronically sent to the doctor or hospital via the internet by the medical tourism agency. The patient has a choice of physicians, but unlike in the U.S. where there is easy access to a doctor’s medical status by medical boards and organizations, other than knowing whether the doctor may have practiced medicine in the U.S., there is little information to come by. Without standardized protocols it is difficult for the patient to make a correct assessment.
When decisions on a patient’s health is driven primarily by cost it can impair the decision making process. There is little argument that healthcare costs in the U.S. are bankrupting corporations and labor unions and deceleration of escalation is nary in sight. With the healthcare industry being 15% of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product and having risen in cost 75% for employers and 143% for employees since the year 2000, the system is broken. High malpractice insurance fees required by both employers and physicians, hospital deregulation and class action medical litigations have only exacerbated the problem.
Such high medical costs will only encourage limited access to healthcare for the middle class and ultimately result in less preventative care costing taxpayers more in the long run. The problem is not the medical care in the U.S., still considered the best in the world, but its delivery system. It is when Medicare and the health insurance providers became the decision makers and took that power away from the physicians that the system began to unravel. Added to that is the lack of restraint of costs by the pharmaceutical industry which charges U.S. patients more for its own medications than any other country in the world.
But as expensive as healthcare is in the U.S., there are legal and safety issues which are part of the American fabric which Americans very much take for granted yet expect but are not present in the undeveloped world. For example, there are few regulatory bodies such as the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, various medical boards, consumer protection laws, available legal experts and the court system. All serve as a net of safeguards offering remedies. But unlike a car purchase, medical care is a complicated undertaking in which there are no guarantees, yet there are areas of compliance which must be maintained.
Once the patient is in a foreign country there is little protection for redress and once that patient leaves the country should they need follow-up care such as therapy or if complications arise even during travel, they must seek medical care in the U.S. Secondarily, if the procedure is performed overseas, insurance providers or Medicare may not honor the additional required care in the U.S. Still, patients may decide to take the risks in addition to the inherent risks of any surgery, but should not be coerced into uninformed choices in order for their employer to save costs under the guise that they are helping to reduce the costs of U.S. healthcare in the long run.
In July 2006 the U.S. Senate Committee on Aging held a hearing called “The Globalization of Healthcare: Can Medical Tourism Reduce Healthcare Costs?” Its goal was to address the subject of medical tourism, its growth, safety of patients and possible regulation of the industry itself. Its Committee Chairman, Senator Gordon H. Smith, has asked that several federal agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Commerce and the Department of State create an interagency task force necessary for lawmakers to reach informed decisions that healthcare consumers themselves cannot accurately make at this juncture regarding offshoring their medical care.
And among the labor unions, the United Steelworkers Union (USW) has publicly weighed in on this issue when it learned one of its union members, employed by Blue Ridge Paper Products, was going to be sent to India for gall bladder surgery simultaneously with shoulder surgery. Leo W. Gerard, USW International President, fired off a complaint dated September 11, 2006 to Congress by contacting the following committees: the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, the House Committee on Ways and Means, the Senate Committee on Finance, and the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.