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Going abroad for more expertise

November 02, 2008|Marla Dickerson | Dickerson is a Times staff writer.

Low cost isn't the only reason Americans are traveling to foreign countries for healthcare. Timmi Ryerson of Vista, Calif., went abroad looking for expertise she couldn't find at home.

Her deteriorating hip led her to India two years ago for a procedure known as hip resurfacing. The surgery has been performed for years in Europe and Asia but was still new in the United States.

"I wasn't willing to be a guinea pig," Ryerson, now 62, said of her decision to seek a veteran foreign surgeon. "I wanted the best in the world."

Ryerson isn't alone. Though most Americans who leave home for healthcare are searching for a bargain, others are scouring the globe for leading-edge therapies or experimental treatments.

Patients unable to qualify for stem cell clinical trials in the United States, for example, are heading to facilities such as Hospital Angeles in Tijuana. The institution offers adult stem cell treatment for people with Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease and other neurodegenerative conditions.

Cancer patients are attracted to Singapore, where doctors are using some innovative surgical techniques, according to Rudy Rupak, founder of Planet Hospital, a Calabasas-based medical travel company.

Critics warn of the potential for quackery and exploitation. Asia boasts a thriving illegal organ trade fueled by wealthy foreigners looking for transplants. Bogus cancer cures abound.

But, Rupak said, the globalization of healthcare has made it possible for patients to review the track records of foreign doctors and hospitals and make their own decisions.

"If you have a certain condition and you're not getting satisfaction in this country, you can look elsewhere," Rupak said.

That was the case with Ryerson, who researched hip resurfacing extensively as her condition grew worse. The technique preserves more bone than a traditional hip replacement. That's because the head of the femur is reshaped and fitted with a metal cap rather than sawed off and replaced with an artificial ball.

Ryerson's insurance would have paid most of the cost for her to have the resurfacing surgery done in the United States. But she was leery because the procedure was so novel here.

The Food and Drug Administration had approved the first hip resurfacing device for use in the United States in May 2006, just a few months before her relentless pain drove her to commit to the surgery.

"I didn't want someone who had done only a couple of these," Ryerson said.

Planet Hospital put her in touch with an Indian surgeon who had performed hundreds of hip resurfacings. Ryerson flew to Chennai, India, and had the procedure done at Apollo Hospital, a facility accredited by the Joint Commission International. She spent 11 days in the hospital in a suite with a 24-hour private nurse. She then moved to a five-star resort.

Cost of treatment: $7,000. That compares with $50,000 to $60,000 in the United States.

Ryerson's insurer paid 80%. Her portion, including airfare and hotel, came to $5,000. That's about half of what she would have paid for the deductible alone in the United States.

Ryerson said her hip was now shipshape. She has returned to snow skiing and playing tennis. A day trader accustomed to volatility, she said her experience convinced her that big changes were in store for the U.S. healthcare system.

"They are going to lose a lot of patients to these overseas facilities," Ryerson said. "It's called the free market."




Resources for medical travelers


* BridgeHealth International,

* Global MD,

* Global Med Network,

* Healthbase,

* IMS Global,

* India America Global Solutions,

* IndUShealth,

* Med Journeys,

* Medical Tourism Corp.,

* Medical Tourism of Costa Rica,

* MedRetreat,

* MedToGo,

* Medtral New Zealand,

* PlanetHospital,

* Recover Discover Healthcare,

* Taj Medical Group,

* WorldMed Assist,


* American Medical Assn.,

* International Medical Travel Assn.,

* Joint Commission International,

* Medical Tourism Assn.,


* HealthCare Tourism International,

* International Medical Travel Journal,

* Medical Nomad,

* Medical Tourism Insight,

* MedTripInfo,

* "Mexico Health and Safety Travel Guide" by Robert H. Page and Curtis P. Page

* "Patients Beyond Borders" by Josef Woodman

* "State of the Heart" by Maggi Ann Grace

* World Medical Resources,

Source: Times research

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