164 pounds lighter in 14 months - Shreveport Times 3/4/2008
copyright Shreveport Times, CA (3/4/2008) - -At 164 pounds lighter than he was 14 months ago, Roshon Vance is a living example that gastric bypass surgery can work.
But unlike the estimated 140,000 or more Americans who stay stateside for the procedure, the Shreveporter is one of an increasing number of people who have searched the globe for a better price.
Vance received his bariatric surgery for $9,000 in Mumbai, India, in December 2006. A price that compares to the $35,000 he was told it would costs stateside. His insurance would not cover the procedure.
He also decided to have a hair transplant for $1,400 and received almost an entire set of crowns and some bridge work for $3,200.
"I did extensive research before I went and I have no regrets whatsoever," said Vance, who is returning to Mumbai on Friday for a face-lift and perhaps a body-lift. "In the U.S., the same procedures would have cost me over $75,000."
It's not possible to track exactly how many Americans are traveling abroad for health care, but some experts estimate as many as 1 million Americans will travel for health care to another country in 2008 and that the industry could be worth $20 billion by the end of the decade.
"Medical tourism has definitely been a consumer-driven phenomenon," said Neilesh Patel, founder and CEO of not-for-profit Healthcare Tourism International, which provides unbiased health travel information to consumers and provides accreditation for health tourism companies.
"Nobody has been able to explain how they achieved those industry numbers," said Patel in a phone interview. "But we know it's an industry that is growing and we know its growing very rapidly."
Health care experts are following close behind, pushing a global standard of care.
In November, top health leaders from six countries (Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States) met in Washington, D.C., to sign a letter of intent to support efforts of a special World Health Organization (WHO) Action on Patient Safety Initiative. The collaborative initiative, known as the High 5s Project, seeks to improve the safety of patients around the world.
A growing number of overseas hospitals also have sought accreditation under the Joint Commission International, the international arm of the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organization, which accredits U.S. hospitals and other facilities.
A list of those hospitals, which include eight in India and three specifically in Mumbai, can be found on the Joint Commission International Web site.
Vance didn't initially seek a foreign hospital for his gastric bypass surgery. Before choosing Mumbai, he'd gone to a bariatric surgeon with the hopes his insurance would cover the cost.
"I was 370 pounds and my blood pressure had skyrocketed," said Vance, who knew he had to make a change. "My doctor recommended me for the surgery, but my insurance wouldn't cover it. I contacted 15 other hospitals and nobody would even take partial payments. They all wanted the $35,000 up front."
Vance didn't give up. Instead, he remembered a special on medical tourism he saw on "60 Minutes" a year before.
"I knew there had to be a solution," said Vance, a former disc jockey at radio station Magic 102.9 who relocated to Shreveport in April. He was living in Atlanta at the time of his surgery and will become operations manager of a station in Little Rock, Ark., at the end of March.
Vance found three hospitals he was considering; one in Thailand, one in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the other in Mumbai.
His communication with the staff at Mumbai was so good, he choose to travel to India even though it was the farthest away.
"I didn't know what to expect, but found the hospital to be state-of-the-art," said Vance, who met four other Americans and several other foreigners the month he was there. "The medical care I received was great. I am also impressed by the fact that these people could have taken my money or discharged me and never contacted me again, but I hear from them almost weekly."
Vance took all of his records with him to India and came back with all of his new records, too.
"Unlike an American hospital, the checkout is a four- to five-hour process," Vance said. "They go through every bit of medical information."
Vance's face lift, which will include a neck lift and brow lift, will cost him about $3,000 to $6,000, which he estimated would have cost him $15,000 in the United States. His body lift also will be about $3,000, which he found would have been about $20,000 in the United States.
Vance did his research, but Patel and others speculate many patients don't.
"The issue in developing countries is that health care quality is much more varied than in the United States," Patel said. "Some may be better and others worse."
Also, because the number one motivator for Americans to go abroad seems to be the cost, it makes patents more vulnerable to risks, he added.
"Many of these patients do not have other affordable options in the United States. This desperation has made some more likely to overlook normal precautions," Patel said.
Many U.S. surgeons also are wary of risks.
The American Society of Plastic Surgeons has issued a briefing on the subject, cautioning potential patients of the difficulty in assessing credentials.
Shreveport surgeon Kenneth Sanders agrees.
"I don't have as big a problem where someone has a procedure, as much as I have a problem with it being treated as a commodity," said Sanders, a board-certified surgeon in facial plastic and reconstructive surgery. "You look for a price break at the grocery store, do you really want to take that (type of thinking) all the way to surgery?"
Sanders' concern would be for consumers to be knowledgeable about the credentials and standards being used by a foreign hospital and its surgeons.
"There's so many standards here when someone tells you something is sterile, it's sterile," he said.
Patel's organization hopes to help patients make safe decisions with information on its Web site at healthcaretrip.org.
"We expect that patients will eventually use our Web site to find accredited medical tourism operators and other companies that provide health tourism services," said Patel, whose company takes no sides on the issue. "Individuals need to weigh that out for themselves if traveling abroad is right for them. We represent all the groups involved in health travel, including patients. We thought the industry needed a neutral organization."
"I'd recommend it to anyone," Vance said. "I'm proud to be an American. But the health care in the United States is almost cost prohibitive; and if I see something that will benefit me, I'm going to try it."
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