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More Americans Considering Overseas Options for Medically Necessary Surgeries Print E-mail

Medical tourism needs careful consideration when extending into necessary procedures, such as joint replacement and even heart surgery

CAPITOLA, Calif. – Mar. 10, 2011 – Medical tourism, a controversial but growing trend as Americans look at overseas options to reduce high medical costs, is attracting interest beyond the typical procedures that have fueled the market.

Until recently, most Americans opting for medical care abroad went for dentistry, cosmetic surgery and other procedures not typically covered by insurance.  With the poor economy and insurance cutbacks, more individuals are considering traveling for medically necessary surgery, such as hip or knee replacements or reconstruction, and even heart procedures.

Yet patients who are considering surgery options in other countries need education far beyond potential cost-savings, according to Dr. Nicholas Abidi of Santa Cruz Orthopaedic Institute.

Nationally and here on the Central Coast, more patients are looking at options in Southeast Asia, Mexico and even Cuba.  Costs in the U.S. can be exponentially higher, and some insurers have even extended coverage for overseas surgery. Out-of-pocket costs after insurance can at times be higher than surgery overseas, where the total cost includes airfare, hotels and a registered nurse at the patient’s side throughout the several week stay.    

Certain hospitals and surgery centers overseas market their facilities as top-flight and promote the expertise of their clinical staff, many of whom have been educated in the U.S. Yet according to Abidi, whose group boasts post-residency fellowship training in sports medicine, joint reconstruction and arthroscopy, the marketing can obscure the reality of conditions and risks associated with overseas surgery options.

“If they encounter unexpected findings during surgery or post-op problems like blood clots, can the physician and the facility respond in a timely fashion that is up to U.S. standards? There is also always the chance of infections post-surgery, and many doctors here are reticent to take on such patients for the long-haul,” he said.  

American Total Joint Replacement Centers like Dominican Hospital and Santa Cruz Orthopaedic Institute are trying to get each total joint implanted to millimeters of perfection, while most centers overseas are just trying to get through the operation, according to Abidi. “Many don’t have access to the type of equipment that we use to monitor patients during surgery or install the implants.  Artificial joints can also fail or be recalled, which will quickly eat up cost savings patients realize from opting for surgery abroad.”

Abidi added that many foreign locations don’t match U.S. standards for infection control and quality assurance.  Accreditation standards are not on par with the U.S., such as The Joint Commission that evaluates hospitals here.  Licensing standards, training of medical staff and accepted levels of staffing also vary among global locations. Should problems arise, there are not the same safeguards built into the U.S. medical system for patient recourse.  

Aptos resident Sandy Dini seriously considered having her recent hip replacement surgery done in India. Her primary care doctor felt there were excellent options overseas for certain procedures, such as joint replacement and shoulder surgery.

She and husband Mark investigated Web sites as the Medical Tourism Association, a non-profit based trade group in Florida that promotes “top-quality health care globally.”   

“The hip replacement surgery would have been $8,000 in India, which included our airfare, a four-star hotel, follow-up appointments and a full-time nurse for a three-week stay,” said Mark. “Total costs for the surgery here was close to $80,000 before the contracted insurance discount---that’s a huge difference.”

Dini’s doctor also referred her to Abidi’s group, Santa Cruz Orthopaedic Institute, and she attended their community education seminars open to the general public.  

She subsequently decided to have Abidi’s partner, Dr. Peter Reynolds, perform the hip replacement surgery, and has been quite pleased with the result and her progress.

“Since we had insurance and the costs were about the same after the insurance kicked in, it made sense to have surgery locally,” said Dini.  “But for the uninsured or underinsured, it seems to be a viable option.”  

Gail DeLano
DeLano Communications
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Gracia Krakauer
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