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Slumdog doctors no more

With U.S. health care reform in question, the number of Americans seeking medical care at one Indian hospital triples.

Les Seaver-Davis, 65, of Greensboro, N.C., in his hospital bed at Wockhardt Hospital in Bangalore recuperating after his right knee replacement surgery. (Namas Bhojani/GlobalPost).

BANGALORE — Lying in a hospital bed in Bangalore’s immaculate Wockhardt Hospital recuperating from a knee replacement surgery on his right knee, Les Seaver-Davis counts off on his fingers the number of times he has been in and out of hospitals back home in Greensboro, North Carolina.

Seven? Eight? He gives up after a few moments, pauses to survey his pristine room, and declares, “For the first time in my life, I feel like I’m cared for by the best people in the world.”

Earlier this month Seaver-Davis, a family mediator and teacher, traveled halfway across the world from Greensboro to Bangalore, where Wockhardt’s surgeons removed the loose implants from a previous surgery in his knee and replaced them with fresh implants.

The surgery cost $11,000, a bargain-basement price that was a quarter of what hospitals in North Carolina were quoting. “If more people knew about the quality of medical care here, American hospitals would go out of business,” said Seaver-Davis.

With the debate raging over health care reform, growing numbers of Americans like Seaver-Davis aren't waiting for Washington: They are outsourcing themselves, or are being outsourced by their employers, to India for medical treatments. Superior care coupled with low costs in internationally accredited hospitals like Wockhardt is proving a hard-to-beat attraction for Westerners.

The global economic downturn is only accelerating the trend. Many U.S. corporations looking to slash employees’ medical bills are making India a medical refuge, as are under-insured and uninsured Americans.

This year Wockhardt has already received 580 American patients for treatments ranging from cardiac bypass surgeries, organ transplants and complex spinal surgeries. That's more than triple the number for the same period last year, the hospital says.

"The recession is really boosting medical outsourcing," said Wockhardt Hospitals CEO Vishal Bali. "In the last few months enquiries for surgeries has more than doubled. We expect a big spike in incoming patient numbers from the United States in the second half of this year."

Interest is peaking from both individuals and companies with the worsening economic conditions, said Rajesh Rao, CEO of the Raleigh, N.C.-based service provider IndUs Health. “At IndUs, patient volumes have doubled since last year,” he said, adding that the bulk of the growth has come from administering medical programs for U.S. employers. 

Despite stiff competition from countries like Singapore and Thailand, India ranks high among the preferred destinations for Americans because of the wide prevalence of the English language. Its high-tech hospitals, foreign-trained doctors and sophisticated treatments are an easy sell.