Medical tourists aren't scared of India's superbug

BANGALORE, India — If you haven't heard of it, you probably don't want to.

It’s the big, bad superbug resistant to even the most powerful antibiotics, and it's allegedly making the rounds of medical establishments in India, and even in the developed world, causing all sorts of problems and scaring the dickens out of everyone.

Everyone, that is, except the thousands of Westerners who are still flocking to India to get their world-class, extremely affordable medical care.

Take 55-year-old Brenda Meece, for example. She lay in her hospital bed in Mumbai last month, looking decidedly cheery for someone who just had her hip joint replaced.

“India is a great option. I spent only half of what I would have back home,” said Meece, who hails from Memphis.

Is she worried about the super bug, called New Delhi Metallo-1 because it is said to have originated in New Delhi? Not even close.

“The doctors are very good and the care levels are phenomenal here,” said Meece. “I hope the news does not make India look like a bad place.”

Dozens of Indian hospitals offer high-quality healthcare at low prices, administered by doctors who have been trained overseas. It's simply an offer that's too good to pass up for uninsured or under-insured Westerners or even companies wanting to save some bucks.

Rodney Schaubroeck, 48, a San Francisco native who is a missionary in Kenya arrived in Bangalore in the middle of August for heart surgery, just as news of the superbug began to break. Schaubroeck, fully covered by an insurance provider in Indianapolis, Ind., was offered a choice by his insurer: return home to San Francisco to get his mitral valve repaired or come to India with his wife, all expenses paid for three weeks, and take home a part of his insurer’s savings.

Schaubroeck said he felt he was in charge of his own healthcare. He checked out the hospital, the surgeons and their equipment on YouTube and through email conversations with others who had gone to India before. “I made up my mind and here I am,” he said.

His surgery was successful.

“There is no lull in international patient arrivals,” said Vishal Bali, CEO of Fortis Hospitals, India’s largest hospital chain where both Meece and Schaubroeck had their operations. “Certainly, some overseas patients who are scheduled to have surgeries with us are asking questions but nobody has pulled out.”

Bali said he expected Western patient numbers to grow between 35 and 40 percent this year, the same as last year.

Raleigh, N.C.,-based IndUShealth, a provider of medical tourism programs to U.S.-based employers and under-insured Americans, said its corporate subscriber base has continued to demonstrate unabated interest in pursuing the India option for medical treatments. One corporate client has sent 60 of its plan's subscribers to India since 2008.

“Several more of their subscribers are in process to go in the coming weeks and none have asked to cancel plans due to the superbug scare,” said Rajesh Rao, CEO of IndUShealth.

Indian health officials have downplayed news of the superbug since the respected medical journal Lancet published its existence in August. Officials have called the research "alarmist," and said naming it after New Delhi was intended to hurt India’s burgeoning medical tourism industry.

“HIV originated in America so can we say AmericaNMD or something like that?” asked India's minister of state for health, Dinesh Trivedi.

“There is nothing new in the Lancet report, we have been dealing with the most resistant type of bacteria during our research,” said Janakiraman Ramachandran, chairman of Gangagen, a U.S.-based medical therapeutics firm.

Westerners will continue to swarm to India to take advantage of the cheaper services, he said.

India’s medical tourism industry, which includes sparkling, clean hospitals that resembles those in the West, contrasts with the squalor just outside the hospital gates.

Meece, the American patient who was in India for the first time, said she heard about the superbug after she had already firmed up her plans to seek health care in India. She and her husband researched the subject and decided that the 37 cases of infection mentioned in the Lancet article were not enough to scare them away.

Lying in her hospital bed, Meece said she was satisfied with the hygiene standards at Fortis’ hospital. She said a dozen members of the cleaning staff go in and out of her room all day, scrubbing, scouring, washing, wiping and dusting.

Schaubroeck, who is recovering in Bangalore, said the risks of medicine are not isolated to India.

“Our insurance company did not force us to go to India," he said. "They were willing to share their savings with us. I decided, why not?"