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Over The Sea, Then Under The Knife

by Frederik Balfour and Manjeet Kripalani ,  Businessweek | 2004-02-16

Patients worldwide are heading to hospitals in Asia for affordable, high-quality surgery

Shaun Reese's bad knee had been nagging him for months. He had torn a ligament a couple of years earlier that never healed properly, and the pain was getting worse. But the 48-year-old building contractor from Wyoming didn't have health insurance, so he kept putting off dealing with the problem. Then a friend suggested he fly to Thailand for some sun -- and a spot of surgery on the side.

After some investigation, Reese took the advice, and in January he hopped a plane for Bangkok's Bumrungrad Hospital, where he had arthroscopic knee surgery. Total cost: $5,000 -- half for the surgery and the rest for airfare and three weeks recuperation on the beach. Back home, he would have paid $6,500 for the operation alone. In Thailand, he says, "the people are supernice, and the facilities are nice and clean and convenient." So nice, clean, and convenient, in fact, that Reese says he may return next year for a hip replacement.

Welshman Cyril Parry's problem wasn't the cost of surgery. He had coverage from Britain's National Health Service but had been waiting more than four years for a hip replacement. As his pain increased, he decided to take matters into his own hands. Online, he found the Web site of the Apollo Hospital in Madras, India, and discovered that a doctor there had worked with a pioneer of hip-replacement surgery in Britain. "His credentials were impeccable," Parry says. Although his family thought he was daft, 59-year-old Parry flew to Madras in November and had the operation. Less than two weeks later, he was home. Total cost: $8,300, which he paid out of pocket. He is thrilled with the results. "I could not have gone anywhere better," says Parry. But he notes that, upon his return, "the nurses at the NHS gave me an attitude of near-hostility for going overseas for my operation."

FEARS OF AVIAN FLU. Those NHS nurses -- and their counterparts elsewhere in the developed world -- may have to shed their attitude. Parry and Reese are among a growing army of patients traveling to Asia for medical care. Thailand's private hospitals treated more than 308,000 patients from abroad in 2002, generating some $280 million in revenue, according to the Thai Private Hospital Assn. And the business is growing. While just around 10,000 international patients checked in to Indian hospitals for everything from hernias to heart surgery last year, health-care tourism in India could become a $1 billion business by 2012, according to a 2002 report by McKinsey & Co. and the Confederation of Indian Industry. Singapore attracted 200,000 foreign patients in 2002 and aims to treat 1 million annually by 2010. Medical care "will be a global business," says C.E. Tan, marketing manager at Parkway Group Healthcare, a chain of hospitals in Singapore that treated 122,000 foreign patients last year.

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