For heart surgery, head for the border?

The cost of health care


Steve Chiotakis: There can be a really big price tag when you get sick. And the health care bill that passed Congress could help later in the spring. But one organization in Tijuana, Mexico, thinks it may already have the key to affordable health care.

Reporter Kevin Ferguson has more.

Kevin Ferguson: For decades, Americans have headed south to Mexico for cheap prescriptions and dental work. But a liver transplant? Or back surgery? Most patients say "No, thanks."

Patrick Osio wants to change their minds.

Patrick Osio: Outside of the United States, there are more American students in medical schools in Mexico than there are anywhere else in the world. And they certainly go back and practice medicine in the U.S., and so the training that the Mexican doctor receives is top notch.

Osio is vice president of the Baja California Medical Tourism Association, which formed in 2008. The organization is sort of a mix between a PR firm and an accreditation service. It reviews and certifies health care providers in Baja California, and refers American patients to the region's hospitals and doctors -- places like Excel Medical Center in Tijuana.

From the inside, Excel looks like your average American hospital: High-tech equipment, spotless floors. Jose Hernandez is CEO of Excel and a cardiovascular surgeon. He says given our nation's political and trade partnerships, Mexico's American's best option for medical tourism.

JOSE HERNANDEZ: We could be more accountable, if it's a bad result to whatever happens to the citizen in the United States.

Hernandez says many of Excel's patients are uninsured Americans. People like Duane Walker of San Antonio, Texas. When he needed a triple bypass, he contacted a medical tourism group called WorldMed Assist. Not long after, he was on a plane to Tijuana.

Duane Walker: We knew the doctors involved were U.S.-trained and were
quite competent. We really didn't have any reservations in that regard.

Walker saved almost $100,000 on his heart surgery. But Judy Dugan of Consumer Watchdog say there's no way to know how safe these procedures are.

Judy Dugan: I mean, the medical facilities can look gorgeous, the
doctor's credentials can look good, but really, you can't tell.

Dugan agrees that the choice is up to consumers, but as domestic health care costs continue to climb and companies try to save money, that might soon change.

In Tijuana, I'm Kevin Ferguson for Marketplace.

Chiotakis: Tomorrow, Kevin reports employers are starting to warm to the idea of medical tourism for their employees.

Log in to post4 Comments

..."Can you imagine enduring major surgery without the post-operation support of an army of family and friends and in a totally unfamiliar environment?"

Yes, I was a patient only a couple months ago at Anadolu Medical Center in Istanbul. I went by myself and felt totally comfortable. The entire procedure cost $4,000 while it would have cost probably 3 or 4 times that in the US.

Honestly, I would never have surgery in the US. Yes, you read that correctly. There is way too much risk of post surgical infection, getting the wrong drug or other errors. There is very little use of computerized physician order entry in the US as there is a first class private facilities like Anadolu.

The kind of poor service and outcome risk in the US gives Americans the belief that it is that way worldwide. Sorry, that just is not the case.

The more correct term when talking about traveling for major surgery is "Surgical Travel", or travel for sugical procedures.

But as long as a term like "medical tourism" has been coined and that's what people search for, then we will use that key word to get the true education in front of the public.

Medical travel was once reserved for rich, upper class patients, but now travel-for-treatment is EVERYONE's domain.

The internet has removed all barriers to healthcare information.

So while I might agree with "Ginsberg" that the term medical tourism was invented by travel agents, the term has it's place serving people combining vacations with light medical procedures for various reasons -- and medical travel for cost and quality considerations is called giving people a choice. It might surprise you to learn that most people travel to be treated by the most highly skilled doctor or for the most advanced technology - or for treatments not availabile in their home country.

However, the idea that "can you imagine enduring major surgery without the support of an "army" of friends, etc. in a "totally unfamiliar environment" -- are you kidding? What hospital is not a totally unfamiliar enviornment? Take your family and support with you -- oh, and there are US doctors now who will travel with you to destinations where having the surgery done in a offshore destination will make the surgery affordable. Should I mention that, depending on the location, many of these hospitals have far lower incidents of infections than US hospitals?

Fogive me if I pitch an article I wrote on this subject, but I think people would be wise to distinguish between the "many faces of medical tourism". Just google that phrase.

Barry asks: "Can you imagine enduring major surgery without the post-operatoin support of an army of family and friends and in a totally unfamiliar environment?"

Let's see - save tens of thousands of dollars traveling to an exotic foreign location without my chattering family ... yes, I can imagine that. I had my hips checked out in France, full CT scan and X-rays, cost me around $200 at a private clinic with a great young doctor (has done thousands of hip and knee replacements, met him riding motorcycles in Cambodia). Same BS in USA would have been what - couple of thousand? Believe it or not, for those of you who don't have a passport, many foreign doctors are as good as or better than many American doctors. Be judicious, but don't be paranoid - foreigners are just like us!

"Medical tourists" is an Orwellian phrase to describe Americans forced by economic necessity to obtain medical treatment outside their home country, which is touted as having the world's best health care system. I can understand why the travel industry invented and has promoted "medical tourism." I'm disappointed that a well-respected news organization seems to have embraced it as readily. Can you imagine enduring major surgery without the post-operatoin support of an army of family and friends and in a totally unfamiliar environment?

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