Outsourcing America's Health Care - Finding Safe Overseas Doctors and Hospitals

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Plastic surgeons overseas are turning up the thermage on offers for total body makeovers, perkier breasts and a cosmetic dentist who will give you perfect smile to go with your new look. But how do you know if foreign health care is safe or not?

In his book, “Beauty from Afar”, author and journalist, Jeff Schult conservatively estimates that over 200,000 traveling patients left the USA last year to have their medical and surgical requests fulfilled in foreign countries such as Brazil, Costa Rica, Thailand and Malaysia.(publisher: Stewart, Tabori & Cheng, New York release date June 1, 2006).

“It’s the lower prices that are the lure,” says Schult.

Some say that paying cheaper prices for overseas medical care carries with it big risks and if you go to foreign country bad things might happen. Others say they have heard plenty of stories about the "risks" and “bad things” that have happened here in the USA.

Those who have traveled overseas for medical care and paid less than $3000 for a facelift or hip replacement will remind us that words like “botched” and “malpractice” have been in use for decades here in the states. They'll tell you that foreign does not mean bad doctors and hospitals. Questionable health care has always been an issue here in states where there are fairly frequent outbreaks of news stories about an unethical doctor's entry into prison instead of an operating room.

Proponents of affordable, overseas medical care are quick to point out that many foreign doctors have the same training as USA MD’s and that more and more foreign hospitals are seeking USA accreditation through the Joint Commission, a USA organization that accredits hospitals who meet their standards for patient safety and comfort.

No doubt the rising costs of USA health care and the much lower prices offered abroad are major points in the decision making process for those choosing overseas health care. Frightened by a future that projects Americans will be spending one out of every five dollars for health care, overseas options for medicine and surgery seem poised to increase in potency and public acceptance.

While the debate about the pros and cons of cheaper medical care abroad can continue until we drop dead, the fact is that many have already traveled overseas for everything from cardiac bypass surgery to Botox® injections and many more are projected to go to places like India and Central America for orthopedic and neurosurgery procedures that will cost them 1/2 to 1/8 of USA costs for the same procedures.

In “Beauty from Afar”, Schult doesn’t debate the fact that “medical tourism” is already happening either. He agrees with those who say there are good and bad doctors and hospitals everywhere – even in the USA. His book takes readers through an array of health facilities and doctors worldwide and like a medical Frommer's (without the ratings), Schult objectively points out low cost health care options, country by country. He strongly encourages potential traveling patients to use websites such as the National Institutes of Health (http://www.nih.gov) and Healthfinder (http://www.healthfinder.gov) as reliable sources of information about their health care choices.

Travel agents and health care brokers from the USA have been quick to jump on the lucrative “medical tourism” bandwagon. These agencies now number in the hundreds, but only two USA companies who send patients abroad employ professionals with a medical background.

One, Medical Tours International (http://www.medicaltoursinternational.com), provides each patient with a USA registered nurse who has been certified in international patient health care. The nurse acts as a liaison between the patient and their foreign health destination.

MTI has also just announced their expanding network of USA MD’s who are available for follow-up care when the traveling patient returns home to the USA (http://www.usadoctorappointment.com).

MTI nurses take a 10 week course that includes language studies in medical terminology and the effects of air travel on pre and post-op patients. Many of the MTI nurses are multilingual and all have at least 10 years experience working in acute care specialties in USA hospitals. "The MTI certification course is rigorous," according to Elise Steffens, MTI's Director of Clinical Operations. "You have to really love what you do to take it," says Steffens, who is one of the course trainers.

The nurses who have passed the certification course for international patient care and now work for Medical Tours International point out that protecting their patients from harm is what nurses have always done – now they are just doing it on a larger scale and in six languages.

Medical Tours International began sending patients overseas to safe, affordable health care facilities in January 2002 and to date has sent over 400 patients to Costa Rica alone. The company founder, Stephanie Sulger, is a registered nurse who first heard about the phenomenon of low cost overseas health care in 2001 when she was visiting a recovery facility in Escazu, an upscale area of Costa Rica’s capital city, San Jose.

Sulger says she was struck by the high quality of health care in Costa Rica, but also became very worried by the fact that so many patients hadn’t researched their doctor or hospital before going abroad for surgery. “Patients seem to think that because they get on an airplane and travel to a foreign country for surgery that it isn’t real surgery or that they are somehow immune to complications,” she says.

"The MTI certification is a solution that bridges the gap in international safety standards, differences in the names and ingredients of foreign medications and addresses the safety issues that can get very complicated when you have non-medical personnel working with, what are sometimes less than healthy traveling patients", Sulger says.

MTI's founder points out that Medical Tours International isn’t in the business of convincing anyone to get aboard an airplane and fly for hours to a foreign country for an operation. "It's obvious that a lot of patients are already doing that" Sulger says. Instead, MTI nurses are trained to provide a continuous corridor of safe, affordable care to and from qualified doctors and hospitals overseas for USA traveling patients.

Thailand expects over a thousand USA orthopedic patients will arrive at Bumrungrad International in Bangkok for surgery before the end of 2006. India is projecting a 40% increase in their growing “medical tourism” industry by next year. The International Hospital Center CIMA San Jose, in Costa Rica expects to be accredited by the USA JCI (Joint Commission International)by 2007. CIMA’s Director, Carol Veloso is a USA registered nurse who regards her hospital as a premier center for the care of patient’s who can’t afford the rising costs of USA health care. CIMA San Jose is currently under expansion to accommodate their already increasing numbers of traveling patients.

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Stephanie Sulger
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