Sep 30

Chapter 1 Page 8 | Tip of the Iceberg — and a Trend

Global competition for health-care dollars is relatively new. The balance is shifting. From the perspective of many health-care professionals in the United States, Canada, and the nations of western European, this is unsettling. It highlights some of the deficiencies in western medical systems: In the United States, high costs and a high number of uninsured; and in Canada and western Europe, long waits and similarly high costs for elective procedures. At one time, only a small number of people from the developed nations went abroad for inexpensive plastic surgery, while a large number of wealthy people from countries with lesser medical care came to the West for advanced care, treatment, and surgery. The estimated 100,000 people (and growing) who now leave the United States annually for plastic surgery only represents the tip of an iceberg for medical tourism as big business.

There are already large success stories that have legitimized this point of view. Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand, is the best known; in 2004 it boasted treating more than 350,000 patients from 150 countries. India is hurrying in the same direction, projecting that medical tourism could be a $2.2 billion business by 2012. Put this way, it sounds huge and economically threatening to the United States and its medical-care system. One can imagine that 10 years from now, the lion’s share of the U.S. cosmetic and other elective surgery businesses will be offshore; that U.S. insurers and Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs) will be putting a hefty percentage of nonemergency-care patients with expensive treatment or surgical needs on airplanes out of the country rather than sending them to local doctors, hospitals, and surgeons. This is a highly exaggerated scenario.

Medical tourism, as such, does not represent a substantial immediate threat to the medical system of the United States, or any other country for that matter. What, after all, is a few billion dollars compared to the $1.7 trillion spent on health care in the United States each year? The billions represent a small shift in revenues in a worldwide multi-trillion dollar health-care system. By serving the uninsured and the underinsured in the United States and by providing an alternative to long waits for treatment or surgery in Canada and western Europe, medical tourism in a sense is augmenting the health-care systems of developed countries, filling and bridging gaps, providing another safety net.

As for aesthetic and cosmetic surgery — the “tip of the iceberg” for the medical tourism phenomenon — overseas surgeons are filling a need. Time and time again, I have heard from surgeons in Mexico, Brazil, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic: We are not taking patients away from U.S. plastic surgeons. Our patients come to us because they cannot afford U.S. prices. If not for us, they would not have surgery at all.

There are many doctors and surgeons in the United States who would prefer that medical tourism just go away. And cosmetic surgeons, personally and through their membership organizations, have thus far expressed most of the public concern and opposition. This is understandable, but there are degrees of opposition, and one would be mistaken to think that all are of the same mind. It is reasonable to suspect that, as time goes on, more medical professionals in the United States will take a less U.S.-centric position and, generally accept that they have an international community of peers.

Just a few months after I returned from my dentistry adventure in Costa Rica, I had an appointment with my ophthalmologist. I am extremely nearsighted and have been from an early age. I’ve worn contact lenses for 36 years, which seems an impossibly long time. In the last several years, my eyes changed such that I was perilously close to requiring bifocals or, as an alternative, reading glasses to wear with my contact lenses. My eye doctor, on this visit, told me that I was an excellent candidate for Lasik eye surgery. I knew what Lasik was, certainly. I knew a lot about it. What lifelong myopic didn’t read up on that when it came out? But I had never before been told I was a good candidate for it.

“It’s improved a great deal in the last two years,” she told me, in response to my questioning about the procedure’s reliability and success rate. “They’ve refined it. We probably won’t see it get much better than it is right now, not anytime soon.”

I knew that Lasik surgery costs more if one is severely nearsighted. She nodded when I guessed the cost. “Yes, you’d probably be paying around $4,000.”

I hesitated, and then told her my Costa Rica story, the short version. And I asked, point blank if she would help and support me if I chose to get Lasik surgery done overseas? Would she work with the foreign doctor, help me get the best care I could? Because I didn’t have $4,000 for Lasik surgery.

She looked me right in the eye.

“Absolutely,” she responded, firmly, surprising me a little. And we had a long talk about where would be the best place to go. My ophthalmologist had a slight preference for India, though we agreed, laughing, that as a second-generation Indian, she perhaps has a prejudice.

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