Slumdog doctors no more

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.

However many Americans, whose only exposure to India comes from films like "Slumdog Millionaire," still shudder at the suggestion of going to India for treatments. Its crowded airports, garbage-strewn streets and poverty-ridden slums do not inspire confidence. Every top-class Indian hospital has a story to tell about an American patient who chickened out just before boarding the flight to India.

“You hear a lot about the poverty and grime, I didn’t have a very high opinion,” admitted Seaver-Davis, who initially considered getting his knee replacement done in Costa Rica or Singapore.

But he found the success rates in Costa Rica questionable and Singapore much more expensive. When he discovered that Wockhardt has an association in India with the global arm of Harvard Medical School, he was comforted. The low infection rates at Indian hospitals finally clinched it.

The cost savings, sometimes up to 90 percent, are increasingly swaying the opinion of American employers who are buffeted by the latest economic downturn, says David Boucher, CEO of Columbia, S.C.-based medical outsourcing service provider Companion Global Healthcare.

Companion’s business focus is almost entirely employer-centric and the firm works with 280 employers in 19 states. Though many Americans are delaying elective surgery for fear of losing their jobs if they take several weeks off from work, the trend is just turning. “I expect medical outsourcing traffic to increase in the next two quarters,” Boucher said.

At Wockhardt Hospital, a ship-shape island of calm on the noisy, traffic-clogged Bannerghatta Road, Seaver-Davis is in an upbeat mood. Getting to India has been one of the best medical decisions of his life, he said.

As if to stamp approval on his India adventure, Seaver-Davis is lengthening his stay. He will get extensive dental work done on his hyper-sensitive teeth at the hospital, again at a fraction of the cost in the U.S. “Beyond the competence of the doctors and the pretty smiles of the nurses, the compassion and empathy is all very real here,” he said.

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