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Monday, June 25, 2007

Weight Reduction Surgery Abroad

Three years ago, James Dodd of Hanford weighed more than 400 pounds. He had trouble breathing at night and doing work around his house. He was desperate for help. But when Dodd, 54, started looking into lap-band weight-reduction surgery for relief, his insurance company denied coverage, calling the procedure "experimental." An Internet search for alternatives turned up Bajanor Hospital in Tijuana, Mexico, where doctors perform the procedure for $7,200 — far less than the $37,000 he said he was quoted at the time.


He got the surgery and is happy with the results, despite serious complications. "Everything in life is a risk," said Dodd, now recovered and slimmer. He said he also could have had complications in the United States, adding, "It would have bankrupted me here." Dodd is among an increasing number of Americans venturing out of the country — to places like Mexico, Thailand, Costa Rica, the Philippines and India — for medical treatment because of the high cost of healthcare. Patients can save as much as 80 percent on procedures done by medical professionals often educated and trained in the United States at hospitals increasingly accredited for meeting U.S.-like standards. An estimated 150,000 people traveled abroad last year for medical treatment, and the number is expected to double by 2010, said Josef Woodman, author of "Patients Beyond Borders: Everybody's Guide to Affordable, World-class Medical Tourism." Nearly half had medically necessary surgeries, such as hip replacements or spinal work, heart surgeries, even cancer treatment.


The book, released in March, tells how patients can save 25 percent to 75 percent on anything from LASIK eye repair to neurosurgery by traveling outside the United States. Health-industry representatives said U.S. healthcare costs more, in part, because of skyrocketing medical-malpractice insurance and the higher wages and benefits paid to hospital workers. Costs are high, said Woodman in a telephone interview, "because Americans demand from cradle to grave the most expensive treatment, the most extensive testing." He said the American healthcare system is "stuck" because insurance companies are dictating what can and can't be covered, and consumers are unable to negotiate direct payment to providers.


Dr. Steven Parks, a longtime surgeon and clinical professor for UC San Francisco's Fresno-based medical education program, said that while he has been all over the world and knows there is great medical care available, he advises caution. He said there are also plenty of Third World countries with hospitals and doctors that don't meet U.S. guidelines and restrictions but offer huge discounts. Hospitals here have to meet certain standards, he said. Those who choose to go abroad? "I think it is probably dangerous, and you are probably taking a risk with your life. I think you should find a way to get it done at the good hospitals in town," Parks said.




Woodman has traveled abroad for his own care. He went to Costa Rica for dental work — a root canal, implants and follow-up care — after looking at several other countries. He said he saved about $2,000. The key to a good experience, he said, is to do your homework, find out about the doctors, try to interview them beforehand, and then ask about success rates and find out about the facility. "If they don't speak English, then move on."


Interest in traveling abroad for medical treatment has spawned a new industry: medical tourism. Companies are playing the role of travel agent and medical-care coordinator and linking American patients with overseas hospitals for a fee.

MedRetreat, based near Chicago, was one of the first when it started in 2003.
The company describes itself as "a medical gateway to healthcare abroad where smart medicine and exotic travel come together."

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