Medical tourism a cheaper alternative to surgery in the states but risks accompany the rewards

(Source: WMC Action News 5)
(Source: WMC Action News 5)(WMC Action News 5)
Updated: Apr. 25, 2019 at 10:00 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - More Mid-Southerners are going under the knife outside the U.S. at a fraction of the price. But are the savings worth the risk? For Willy Bearden it was.

When he could no longer ignore his chest pains, Bearden booked an appointment with a cardiologist. The diagnosis was blocked arteries. The recommended treatment was open heart surgery.

“If I had to have bypass surgery it was going to be between $350,000 and $500,000, which of course I don’t have," said Bearden.

The self-employed Memphis filmmaker and writer didn’t have insurance at the time, so all of that would come out-of-pocket.

“I think that frightened me more than my health problems did,” he said.

So Bearden began researching alternatives and soon found the Fortis Hospital Group in India. The hospital offered the surgery for a fraction of the price.

Four months later he checked in for surgery.

“I trusted those people. I trusted them with my life. And the whole thing wound up costing me $9,000,” he said.

We did our own research using the pricing information American hospitals are now required to publish online. At Baptist Memorial Hospital, the average charge posted for Bearden’s procedure is between $114,429 and $140,767. At St. Francis Hospital, the charge master puts the procedure’s price between $282,647 and $320,775.

“In the United States it’s all about cost,” said Josef Woodman, CEO of Patients Beyond Borders.

The Global Wellness Institute calls Patients Beyond Borders “the leading consumer guide to medical tourism.” Woodman estimates 1.9 million Americans will travel outside the U.S. for medical procedures this year alone.

In 2005, his father went under the knife in Mexico.

“I thought, ‘wow this trend is going to lead to people forced out of the country for care just like my father was’ because he doesn’t have a lot of money and he went and got $33,000 worth of restorative dentistry for around $17,000,” he said.

Through Woodman’s 12 years of work with internationally accredited hospitals, Ministries of Health, doctors and specialists, Patients Beyond Borders compiled a short list of the most-traveled destinations and the average range of savings per procedure.

India tops that list with 65 to 90 percent savings compared to American prices. Malaysia offers 65 to 80 percent savings, Thailand 50 to 75 percent and closer to home Mexico cuts the bill by 40 to 60 percent.

Travel and Leisure magazine reports hotels and resorts are cashing in on medical tourism too with vacation packages that include clinic shuttle service, holistic personal cooks and accommodations designed for recovery.

“We do not promote medical tourism for the more complex surgeries that demand a lot of recovery. But for these in-and-out producers like light cosmetic surgery and light dentistry, that’s a real biggie,” said Woodman.

Woodman stresses the importance of patients doing their research. It’s a lesson Tamika Capone learned the hard way.

“Haven’t felt right, didn’t feel right since,” she said.

The 40-year-old Jonesboro woman discovered she could save more than $13,000 on a gastric sleeve procedure if she traveled to Tijuana, Mexico. A friend recommended Grand View Hospital.

“I didn’t do enough research. I went by somebody else’s... don’t go,” said Capone.

Capone returned to the states with a potentially-deadly super bug. She’s one of almost a dozen Americans who contracted an antibiotic-resistant bacteria after going under the knife in Tijuana last year.

In January, the CDC recommended travelers to Tijuana not have surgery at Grand View.

“I would have rather be fat, fatter. I would have rather be where I was then to be going through what I am going through,” she said.

Joint Commission International helps Americans search for quality care overseas. International hospitals accredited by JCI are held to the same standards as accredited American hospitals.

“It’s absolutely imperative, job number one, for patients to do their research and not rely simply on references from friends,” said Woodman.

Capone is now struggling with infection and additional medical bills that wiped out any of the money she saved in Tijuana.

“My life was worth more than $4,000 and now look at me,” said Capone.

But Bearden is reminded daily of his successful medical journey abroad. A scar and tattoo on his arm mark the vein taken to repair his heart.

His outcome is worlds apart from the medical tourism mistakes made by so many.

“These high costs of care and our broken health care system are forcing millions and millions of patients to make decisions that they otherwise would not have made,” said Woodman.

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