Advice to Medical Tourists From the American College of Surgeons

DrRich | March 29th, 2011 - 2:41 pm

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In an earlier post, DrRich offered several potential strategies for doctors and patients to consider should healthcare reformers ultimately succeed in their efforts to make it illegal for Americans to seek medical care outside the auspices of Obamacare. To those readers who persist in thinking that DrRich is particularly paranoid in worrying about such a thing, he refers you to his prior work carefully documenting the efforts the Central Authority has already made in limiting the prerogatives of individual Americans within the healthcare system, and reminds you that in any society where social justice is the overriding concern, individual prerogatives such as these must be criminalized. Indeed, whether individuals will retain the right to spend their own money on their own healthcare is ultimately the real battle. The outcome of this battle will determine much more than merely what kind of healthcare system we will end up with.

DrRich, despite his paranoia on the matter, is a long-term optimist, and believes that the American spirit will ultimately prevail. So, to advance this happy result DrRich (in the previously mentioned post) graciously offered several creative options that could be employed to establish a useful Black Market in healthcare, which will allow individuals to exercise their healthcare-autonomy against the day when such autonomy again becomes legal. His suggestions included offshore, state-of-the-art medical centers on old aircraft carriers; combination Casino/Hospitals on the sovereign soil of Native American reservations; and cutting-edge medical centers just south of the border (which would have the the added benefit of encouraging our government to finally close the borders to illegal crossings once and for all).

As entertaining as it might be to imagine such solutions, a readily available, though much more mundane, option exists today, which is to say, medical tourism.

Medical tourism is where one travels outside one’s own country in order to obtain medical care elsewhere. It is becoming a booming business. A number of superb state-of-the-art medical centers expressly aimed at attracting medical tourists have been established in the Middle East, Singapore, India, China and elsewhere in Asia. These institutions cater to citizens of the world whose own healthcare systems cannot (or will not) provide in a timely fashion (or at all) the level of care patients may desire. Many of these institutions offer modern hospitals, numerous amenities, luxurious accommodations, attentive nursing care, and top-notch doctors – and they do it all for a tiny fraction of what the same care might cost (if you can even find it) in the U.S. and other “first world” nations.

Obviously, medical tourism is not particularly feasible for medical emergencies such as heart attack or stroke, or for chronic illnesses such as diabetes, congestive heart failure, or Parkinson’s disease, which require frequent visits and long-term management.  What is feasible is to become a medical tourist for those one-time medical services that can be scheduled and planned, for which there is a long waiting period at home, or which is simply too expensive in one’s own country. Such medical services often include coronary artery bypass surgery, hip replacements, knee replacements, and numerous minimally-invasive and not-so-minimally-invasive surgical procedures. In other words, medical tourism to a large extent is something one does for elective (i.e., non-emergency) surgery.

These are the very procedures, as DrRich has pointed out, which are now being covertly rationed in the U.S. thanks to the “never events” policy adopted by CMS and private insurers. As a result, certain categories of individuals may soon find it more difficult to obtain elective surgical services than they might have just a few years ago, and medical tourism may accordingly become a more compelling alternative.

It ought not be a surprise, therefore, that the first organization of American physicians to issue a formal policy statement regarding medical tourism is the American College of Surgeons.

The reaction of American surgeons to medical tourism ought to be obvious. They hate it. Elective surgical procedures – the very procedures for which Americans become tourists – are the bread and butter of most surgical specialties. It pains them to think of their prospective patients going off to Singapore for their lucrative bypass surgeries. American cardiac surgeons, for instance (already underemployed, thanks to American cardiologists throwing stents at every tiny coronary artery indentation they they can justify as a “blockage”), are nearly apoplectic at the idea.

It’s always a delight to read formal policy statements which attempt to disguise an entirely self-serving message as a selfless public gesture. The actual message of the surgeon’s policy statement, of course, is, “We hate medical tourism, and if you do it we’ll hate you,” but they say so on a manner which is designed to be polite, politically correct, non-judgmental, helpful and even friendly.

The surgeons in general have made a good effort, as you can see if you’d like to read the policy statement for yourself. It’s pretty much what you would expect – “Go ahead and have your knee replaced in Timbuktu if you want to. It’s your right, so go ahead and devil take the hindmost. Just don’t come crying to me when things go south a month later.”  They do so, however, in an extraordinarily collegial way.

The artful style of their policy statement aside, DrRich is struck by two aspects of the actual substance of the document.

First, the surgeons begin with a litany of dire warnings regarding all the medical considerations one must take into account before trusting one’s health to foreign medical hands:

“Some of the intangible risks include variability in the training of medical and allied health professionals; differences in the standards to which medical institutions are held; potential difficulties associated with treatment far from family and friends; differences in transparency surrounding patient discussions; the approach to interpretation of test results; the accuracy and completeness of medical records; the lack of support networks, should longer-term care be needed; the lack of opportunity for follow-up care by treating physicians and surgeons; and the exposure to endemic diseases prevalent in certain countries. Language and cultural barriers may impair communication with physicians and other caregivers.”

Obviously, these are all very important considerations. What strikes DrRich, however, is that these are the very same considerations (even the warning about endemic diseases, when one considers the MRSA infections which are secretly “endemic” in some American hospitals) which patients must also take into account before agreeing to receive care in any American institution. It may turn out that these considerations are more an issue in top-notch foreign hospitals than in your average American hospital, but DrRich is not convinced this is the case, and the surgeons do not provide any evidence that it is. In other words, DrRich sees this very good advice as being equally applicable whether one is considering becoming a medical tourist, or just a typical American patient.

Second, and more astonishingly, DrRich notes – not so much with interest, but more with awe – that the surgeons are beseeching their patients to consider just how difficult it might be to launch a malpractice suit against foreign doctors. (DrRich himself does not know how difficult this would be. Given that we are being so strongly urged these days to merge the American legal system with several varieties of international law, it might not be such a big problem.) Indeed, a careful reading of this policy statement reveals that the potential difficulty in suing foreign doctors is offered as the chief differentiator, and thus it has become the primary argument in favor of good-old-American-surgery. The surgeons, in essence, are saying, “Let us do your surgery, because we’re easier to sue if we screw up.”

This, from the very body of American physicians who are most at risk for malpractice suits, and who traditionally have been most vociferous in favor of malpractice reform.

DrRich can only shake his head in wonderment. If medical tourism is viewed by surgeons as such a dire threat that they have embraced, as their chief weapon against it, a celebration of the ease of suing American doctors, why, one can only conclude that medical tourism must have caught on far more than most of us realize.

As an American physician who has always been proud of American medicine, DrRich’s innate tendency is to lament the fact that Americans are finding it to their advantage to travel to Mumbai for their hip replacements. But as a patriot, he celebrates the fact that his fellow citizens are willing to go to such lengths to exercise their individual autonomy. He finds it a hopeful sign.

Our would-be oppressors might find it more difficult to hold us down than they may think.

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