Patients travel overseas for treatment

Monday, April 21st 2008, 3:46 pm
By: News 9

By Dave Jordan, NEWS 9

The increasing cost of health care is forcing some Oklahomans to seek medical treatment overseas, some patients say.

An estimated 650,000 people in Oklahoma are without health care, making it difficult to afford surgeries and other medical procedures. Healthbase, a Massachusetts-based medical travel group, is helping Oklahomans and other Americans find cheaper health care in other countries as part of the growing trend known as medical tourism.

Daniel Biggs was looking at a hefty price tag for surgery on a snapped tendon in his right hand, he said.

"Including post-operative therapy, I think $22,000 to $28,000 - it's just mind-boggling," he said.

Biggs had recently started a new job and wasn't immediately covered by health insurance, leaving the seasoned traveler looking for another solution.

He decided to have the surgery done in Panama.

"My mom was horrified," he said.

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Biggs had the operation after paying about $5,500 for hospital fees an $700 for a plane ticket. He found the hospital and his surgeon through Healthbase.

Saroja Mohanasanduram founded the company three years ago in response to the growing number of Americans without health care coverage. She said their business has tripled within the last year. 

"We are seeing more and more people going for non-elective procedures, like orthopedic procedures, spinal procedures, cardiac procedures, cardiac wall procedures, valve repair," Mohanasanduram said.

Analysts predict medical tourism could be a $2.3 billion business for India by 2012.

Oklahoma City medical professionals said they're not surprised patients are leaving the country for medical care.

Dr. Alvin Philipose with the Trinity Clinic of Oklahoma City said more patients are curious about traveling for treatment.

"They're asking about treatments in India and even in Europe," he said. "We've been getting a lot more questions about that, and we've been looking into maybe working with some of these hospitals overseas."

Philipose said in the past year at least seven of his patients have traveled to another country for treatment.

One of his patients recently traveled to India for a disk rupture repair surgery that usually starts at about $50,000 in the United States.

"I think it cost him about $7,500 total and that's with his plane ticket," Philipose said.

Dr. Gerald Zumwalt with the Oklahoma State Medical Licensure Board said he worries about the safety and quality issues that come with outsourcing medical care.

"In medicine, like everything else, the cheapest product is not always a bargain," Zumwalt said.

Zumwalt said the cost of living in many countries is lower and that trickles down to the cost for medical care, but there is no worldwide agency that inspects or certifies hospitals overseas.

"It's a difference to what the medical standards are in the country that you're going to as to whether or not you really should have faith in the surgeons, hospitals and the medications that are going to be used," he said.

Dr. Philipose and Biggs said they understand the safety concerns and because of that, they used facilities with ties to U.S. hospitals. Bigg's Panamanian hospital is affiliated with Johns Hopkins, something he learned through extensive research.

"It took several weeks of [researching for] hours and hours," Biggs said. "I was a little meticulous about it. I wanted to find a really reputable hand surgeon. I would do it again in a heartbeat. It was an incredibly positive experience."