Medical tourism: Weighing the safety and saving of surgery abroad

Health

GREENVILLE, S.C. (WSPA) – Medical tourism has become a growing industry as more and more patients have started taking trips to foreign countries for medical procedures.

Some people on a slim budgets have found it can be very cost effective.  But what other costs or dangers are there? 7 News looked into the risks and the savings.

In American, even if one has good heath insurance, it often does not cover elective procedures such as weight loss surgery.

7 News spoke with two people who have had gastric sleeve surgery. One person had surgery in Anderson, S.C. and the other person had surgery in Mexico.

And it turns out, their experiences were not all that different.  

For Stephen Smith, of Piedmont, and Erica Cathey, of Williamston, food had been a long time comfort from the pain of childhood experiences.  

“I’ve even tried committing suicide. That’s how bad my depression got,” said Cathey.

Smith said many of his close family members passed away from weight related issues.

“My parents died relatively young. My mom was 40. My Dad was 42. My brother was 30 when he passed away, so obesity ran in the family,” said Smith.

After years of unsuccessful dieting and failing health, both Smith and Cathey decided weight loss surgery could be a life saver.

“I went to the doctor and I had been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. And I was like I  have got to do something because if I don’t take control of this now, you know, I could lose a foot or a leg or my life, and I just couldn’t leave my son and my wife there with nobody,” Smith said.

He had the procedure in August of 2018, and his insurance covered about $14,000 of the total bill.

Cathey said her insurance did not cover any of the $20,000 tab.  

So last month, after talking with her doctor, she traveled to Mexico.

“My doctor looked at me like, hold on, hold on, why are you choosing Mexico?  I finally explained it to him, and he’s like, ‘OK, lets do this test and do this test before you go.’ I came back fine and he’s like, ‘OK, come back and see me as soon as you get home,'” Cathey said.

Both patients underwent the same procedure called the Gastric Sleeve, which removes nearly three quarters of the stomach.  

Smith spent about $6,000 out of pocket at AnMed, and his insurance covered the rest of the bill.

Cathey spent about $5,649, including the airfare and hotel stay, again, with no help from insurance.

AnMed Health Bariatric Surgeon Dr. Peter Bechtel admitted he has not personally seen or read about Americans suffering major complications from getting the procedure done in Mexico. But he said right now the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery advises against it.

“It’s hard to know about the quality of the facility. It’s hard to know the quality of the surgeon. It’s hard to know if you’ll get a standard procedure versus some kind of modified procedure, and it’s hard to know if the surgeon will give you what’s best for you or maybe exploiting it and giving you what’s best for them,” Bechtel said.

Bechtel said patients who travel to other countries for surgeries should make sure they get copies of the operative record, which explains exactly what the surgeon did, as well as any x-rays, swallow studies or CAT scans done post surgery.  Patients should get these records so that American doctors can follow up if needed.

“Do the research on the doctor before making the decision itself,” Cathey said.

She said one hospital required cash, which would have made for dangerous travel.  

Cathey opted for a go-between called Quality Medical Facilitators.  The company said it vets the hospital and doctors, and recommends potential patients contact former patients to get honest reviews.

“A big red flag for me would be very low prices.  I see at times that there are companies offering prices that are very, very low.  I would be suspicious of that,” Veronica Jauregui with Quality Medical Facilitators said.  

Wherever the surgery occurs, patients should be aware of the 10 year success rate, which is defined as losing 50% of the excess body weight.  For sleeve patients, that’s 68% of excess body weight. For gastric bypass patients, it is 76%.

Smith said she dropped 150 pounds in one year and has been running triathlons.

“I look at myself right now and how I feel and how other people perceive me and I just it’s never again,” Smith said.

Cathey who just began her journey has already been seeing life changing results.

“After two weeks, I dropped 20 lbs and I’m no longer diabetic. I no longer have high blood pressure,” Cathey said.

She said she hopes her story will one day in line with the success Smith has seen. She said she is grateful for an international option that opened her world to a procedure that was once out of reach.

Cathey said she has not had any complications from the surgery.

Meanwhile, Smith said since he maxed out his deductible when he got his surgery in 2018, his wife who also qualified and had her gastric sleeve surgery the same year at no cost.  

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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