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Medical Tourism Business Takes Root in San Diego

by Tom Fudge ,  www.KBPS.org | 2009-06-17

Today, the U.S. Government estimates that health care costs account for 16 percent of the Gross Domestic Product. The high cost of medical treatment may be the number one issue in health care reform. And it's already caused some patients to go elsewhere to save money on major operations.

People who promote medical tourism say the popular expression is a misnomer because it's not really tourism. Steven Lash is founder of a San Diego company called Satori World Medical, which arranges operations overseas. He says he prefers the expression, medical travel.

"We really think that 'medical tourism' demeans the seriousness and the quality of the experience," he says. "Because you're not climbing Machu Picchu when you're going through one of our procedures."

Lash says when you go overseas for surgery there's another mountain you don't have to climb. The towering summit of U.S. health care costs. Lash is part of an industry that's grown up around the need for affordable health care. The costs of health care in the U.S. are so high that American patients can save tens of thousands of dollars by getting an operation overseas. Americans travel for coronary bypasses, hip replacements, shoulder and spine surgery and bariatric surgery to name a few. Lash says even when the cost of airfare and his profit margin are figured in, the savings are between 40 and 80 percent.

"If you leave from San Diego, a coronary artery bypass graff, at our lowest cost hospital, is $21,000 compared to the average domestic paid is about $80,000. And then the median, if you throw out the lowest, the median price for the rest of our network is $26,000," he says.

Lash says his goal is to strike deals with insurance companies so they offer medical travel as part of their coverage. Robert Zirkelbach is a spokesman for the trade organization America's Health Insurance Plans, AHIP. He says he has some concerns about medical travel.

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