September 25, 2005 in Nation/World

‘Medical tourists’ going to India for their health care

Ramola Talwar Badam Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Bradley Thayer, a retired apple farmer from Okanogan, Wash., went to Bombay, India, for reconstructive surgery on his knee.
(Full-size photo)

BOMBAY, India – Bradley Thayer, a retired apple farmer from Okanogan, Wash., traveled 7,500 miles to get his torn knee ligament fixed, and says he paid a third of what it would have cost him in a U.S. hospital.

And that included airfare to Bombay.

Thayer, 60, had no health insurance when he fell and injured himself while summering in British Columbia. He says his U.S. doctors told him he would have to wait six months for surgery and pay bills totaling $35,000.

So he joined a rising tide of American and European patients heading to India, Thailand and Singapore for orthopedic surgery, plastic surgery, infertility treatment and cardiology that come much cheaper than in the West.

It’s the latest in outsourcing – Asian doctors study in the United States or Britain, acquire their skills and reputations in hospitals there, then take them back to their home countries and wait for the business to come to them.

“Flying halfway around the world is cheaper,” said Thayer, beaming from his Bombay hospital bed. “I came straight to India. It’s a long way to come without tests, but I feel great.”

He had never been to India, and he first had to overcome the stereotypes at home.

“My friends and relatives said I was crazy. They said, ‘They’ll cremate you along the Ganges.’ ”

But he already felt familiar with Asian doctors. “In Canada and America when you read the names of doctors in hospitals, every third or fourth doctor is Indian,” he said.

Hospitals in Bombay, Delhi and Bangalore have been taking these so-called “medical tourists” since the mid-1970s, initially from the Middle East and South Asia, later from Africa, and now from the West.

So far, news has spread largely by word of mouth, or on Web sites set up by patients to extol their Indian experiences and become vocal proponents. Now the Indian government is getting behind it, offering one-year medical visas extendable for an additional year, and organizing exhibitions abroad to advertise Indian hospitals.

It is also planning to create a list of recommended hospitals. That’s important because while India has top-notch doctors, it is still notorious for its filth and poverty. Even at some top hospitals, nursing care can be poor and hygiene standards dramatically lower than in the West. So it’s important to shop around.

“Many foreigners are still not completely convinced about India. They worry about safety standards,” said Vinod Tenguria, founder of Vedic India, a company that arranges hotels for patients.

Cosmetic surgeon Dr. Mohan Thomas, a member of the government’s council for medical tourism, says foreign patients need to choose carefully.

“Check the doctor’s credentials, the hospitals he is attached to and, most important, see some work he has done,” advises Thomas. “Check how much effort the hospital takes with cleanliness starting with the bathroom.”

He says 25 percent of his patients are from overseas, primarily Britain, the United States and Africa.

Invariably they go to the best private hospitals and stay in high-end private rooms, which are usually on different floors from the cheaper general wards.

India is still a relative newcomer to the international medical market, attracting 150,000 foreign patients last year, compared with Singapore’s 200,000 and Thailand’s 600,000.

But India’s numbers are increasing. In Jaslok, one of Bombay’s top private hospitals, three Americans were recovering from orthopedic surgery in June alone.

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