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Published On September 22, 2005

CLINICAL CARE

The Medical Tourist

The author gets a very thorough, very pleasant checkup in Thailand.

My introduction to medical tourism came in 2002. A visit to a California dentist revealed that eight of my fillings were deteriorating. I’d need them refilled, preferably with composite, at a cost of $1,500.

During the 1990s, when I lived briefly in South Asia, my expatriate colleagues often traveled to hospitals in Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur for their medical and dental needs. Many of the doctors, they said, had been trained in the West. The price was right, and care was excellent.

Traveling abroad in search of cures is, of course, nothing new. For centuries pilgrims have trekked across continents to the Ganges, Lourdes and any number of other sacred healing grounds. But today medical tourists, venturing to Latin America as well as Asia, are motivated more by economics than spiritual concerns. Seeking good, affordable care—everything from basic medical procedures to hip replacement and sex-change operations—patients from the U.K., the U.S., Australia and the Middle East are venturing to overseas clinics. In India alone, medical tourism could be a $2 billion-a-year business by 2012.

Add to that the appeal of recuperating in a tropical locale, with private nurses and personal cooks—not to mention visits to the Taj Mahal—and the prospect seems irresistible. (Around $4,000 will cover airfare fare to Bangkok, a breast-implant procedure, six nights in a hotel and a personal assistant to accompany you to appointments and plan post-op leisure activities.)

Any misgivings I may have had vanished when I stepped into the Thai hospital’s air-conditioned atrium. I bought a latte and rode the escalator to the dental clinic. Aides in crisp uniforms circulated around the immaculate waiting area with carts, offering complimentary soft drinks and towelettes.

My dentist appeared at 1 p.m. on the dot. She was pleasant and spoke excellent English. After a cleaning and X-rays, she pronounced her recommendation: “Only five fillings need replacement. And amalgam is fine in those locations. If you like, I’ll do the work immediately.” Fifty minutes later, I approached checkout with a new set of perfect fillings. My bill came to $84.

Since that first visit, I’ve come to rely on the hospital as my primary health-care facility. My faith was put to the test when, as a 50th birthday gift to myself, I indulged in one of the hospital’s health-screening packages. The suite of services—everything from a stress EKG to a colonoscopy—was priced at less than $600, with polyp removal tossed in for free.

After a memorable digestive tract cleansing, I was ushered into the gastrointestinal unit. Mildly sedated, I lay on my side watching the procedure live, on a bedside monitor. Contrary to my hopes, the journey up my colon was not exactly Fantastic Voyage, and I drifted off.

On awakening, I found myself in a small ward. I felt alert and comfortable but would have given anything for a warm drink. No sooner had the thought formed than a pretty Thai nurse approached with tea service and an unguarded smile. “Good afternoon,” she said brightly. And added, with a concerned pout: “Does your bottom hurt?”

Two days later, my fee entitled me to a consultation with a Thai specialist trained in North Carolina. Dr. Muang was polite, attentive and thorough. He explained my test results and recommended a few tweaks to my diet. As I was leaving, he jotted down his cell-phone number. “Please call if you have any other questions,” he offered. “Otherwise, come back in three years!”

When I approached the cashier for my bill, there were no surprises—save one. For an additional $18, I could have my very own videotape of the journey up my intestines. I politely declined.

 

First Person originates at the other end of the stethoscope, presenting essays and commentary from patients, consumers and other medical outsiders. Proto invites your contributions; please send ideas to the editor.

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