This Is What Happens When People Travel the World to Save Their Own Lives
More and more Americans are heading to Asia, Europe, or the Caribbean to receive the life-saving medical care they need. Sure, you can save thousands, but medical tourism does have risks. These real-life stories illustrate some of the ups and downs.
Medical tourism is growing
Patients from all over the world engage in medical tourism, which simply means traveling to receive medical care in another country. India and Thailand (and the United States, for non-Americans) have long been top destinations, but more patients are now seeking out doctors in Europe and the Caribbean as well. Cost is often a major reason patients travel for care. By some estimates, a heart bypass surgery that costs $210,000 here would cost just $12,000 in Thailand; in Singapore, a knee replacement typically runs about $13,000—$22,000 less than it would cost in the United States. Such huge cost savings are even attracting some American employers and insurance companies to officially offer medical travel options to their employees and clients. Don’t miss these 16 things you need to know before taking on a knee replacement surgery.
Seeking experimental treatments
Russia, China, and certain Caribbean countries promote themselves as destinations for patients looking for medications or procedures that aren’t approved by medical regulators in their home countries (such as the FDA). It’s sometimes referred to as “circumvention tourism,” and it’s a thorny issue, say experts: Some clinics give unwitting foreign patients untested or even fraudulent “cures,” while others provide safe, state-of-the-art procedures that are still being studied in the United States.
“Caribbean” prostate cancer treatment
When retired teacher Jim Wickstrom was diagnosed with prostate cancer at age 63, he read everything he could get his hands on about the disease and his treatment options. One in nine men will get prostate cancer in their lifetimes and it’s highly curable when caught early. But common treatments such as radiation and surgery carry risks of urinary or bowel incontinence and erectile dysfunction. So Wickstrom chose a different option: High-intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU)—a noninvasive procedure that at the time wasn’t approved in the United States.
Stephen Scionti, MD, one of several American urologists trained in HIFU at the time, met Wickstrom in the Caribbean to do the procedure. “We traveled to Bermuda for my outpatient HIFU and the day after […] I walked a mile and had no pain,” says Wickstrom, who is now 70 and still cancer-free. “My goal was to get rid of the cancer and come out continent and potent. I did.” HIFU has since been approved by the FDA for use in the United States, although it is still not covered by most U.S. insurance companies.
A viral cure for a deadly infection?
At age 51, Laura Roberts was told she had just three months to live. Seven years earlier, Roberts had developed a staph infection caused by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus that would not respond to even the strongest antibiotics. The infection had spread to her lungs, ears, and stomach and her doctors were out of ideas. Then she saw a story on television about a treatment called “phage therapy,” widely used in Eastern Europe and Russia, in which viruses called “bacteriophages” are used to attack and kill antibiotic-resistant bacteria. “I didn’t know if it could help me, but if I was going to die, I was going to die fighting,” Roberts told Prevention magazine.
Roberts traveled 23 hours to the Phage Therapy Center in Tbilisi, Georgia, to receive three weeks of treatment. It worked. “It’s a shame that you have to fly to Georgia to save your life,” Roberts says. “It’s a shame phages are not available in the U.S. I hope that happens in my lifetime.” American doctors like Timothy Lu, associate professor of biological engineering at MIT, are trying to make that happen by working with other organizations such as the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research and AmpliPhi Biosciences to move phage therapies through the testing and approval process in the United States. Read about five more stunning medical miracles.
Fake fixes for desperate patients
A British couple, desperate to find a cure for their four-year-old son’s autism and speech problems, took him to a stem cell clinic in China in 2013. They paid more than $30,000 for four weekly injections that did nothing but waste their money—and torture the young boy with unnecessary prods and pokes, according to the medical tourism organization Treatment Abroad. “They know that their stem cells don’t work on autism, but they’re still consistently inviting patients to their clinic and taking thousands of [dollars] from them,” the mother said.
Stem cell therapy is commonly sold as a “miracle cure” for dozens of difficult-to-treat diseases such as dementia, Parkinson’s, and multiple sclerosis, and it happens in unregulated clinics around the world: Latin America, Eastern Europe, China, and India, according to the International Medical Tourism Journal. But in reality, there is little solid evidence that stem cell therapy works for these conditions.
Coverage denied? Hip replaced anyway
In 2013, Michael Shopenn had arthritis so painful that he couldn’t stand up long enough to make a pot of coffee. He was 67 at the time and he desperately needed a hip replacement, but because the arthritis was related to an old athletic injury, his insurance called it a pre-existing condition and denied coverage for the procedure.
Shopenn knew about people traveling to Asia and Latin America for cheaper healthcare, but he told the New York Times that he was leery of going to a so-called “developing” country such as India or Thailand for care at the time. Instead, he went to Europe, to a private hospital in the suburbs of the capital city of Belgium. For a procedure that would’ve cost $78,000 in the United States, Shopenn paid less than $14,000—including rehab, crutches, medicine, and round-trip airfare. “We have the most expensive health care in the world, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best,” Shopenn said. “I’m kind of the poster child for that.”
Dangerous plastic surgery
A few years ago, a doctor in Maryland treated two friends who’d gotten serious bacterial infections after having plastic surgeries at the same clinic in the Dominican Republic. They had contracted mycobacteria (RGM), a germ that’s resistant to standard antibiotics. When the friends mentioned a third person had gone with them and was also sick, the Maryland Department of Health and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), launched a nationwide investigation and ultimately found almost two dozen people with RGM who had had cosmetic procedures like liposuction, breast reduction, and buttocks augmentation in the DR. Eight of those people were hospitalized because of the infection, some of them multiple times; several had to have surgery to treat the infection.
“Patients need to be very cautious when they go outside of the United States for elective plastic surgery. The safety and regulatory systems that protect patients in the U.S. are often not in place in a [developing country],” Dennis Orgill, MD, PhD, medical director of Brigham and Women’s Hospital’s Wound Care Center. told Science Daily. Don’t miss the 50 secrets surgeons won’t tell you.
Stay healthy by doing research
Anyone considering medical treatment abroad should talk to his or her doctor in their home country first, and also read up on best practices and safety information by organizations like Patients Beyond Borders and the Joint Commission International (JCI), an American non-profit that evaluates and accredits foreign hospitals and other healthcare facilities. You can search for a JCI-accredited hospital anywhere in the world at WorldHospitalSearch.org.