Hip outsourcing

Davis man discovers affordable health care in India

Jim Leonard is getting around a lot better since receiving hip surgery in India.

Jim Leonard is getting around a lot better since receiving hip surgery in India.

Photo By dominick porras

Davis resident Jim Leonard walks around town a little slower than most people. He limps slightly to the left, but he’s content just to be able to walk at all.

“I’m happy. I’m walking the block in downtown and it feels great,” he says proudly.

It’s a big change from three years ago, when the once-active Leonard found out he had osteoarthritis in 2005. Soon hiking and even walking seemed out of reach.

“The arthritis kept on getting worse and worse, and it finally got to a place where it was a real struggle to even walk a block. I’d spend a lot of time lying around in bed,” Leonard says. “It was clear to me that I would not live as long if I continued to do that.”

He realized that if he wanted to be mobile again, he needed hip resurfacing, a procedure that costs $55,000 in the United States. With no insurance and no desire to go into massive debt, Leonard decided to leave what he describes as “money-centered” approach to American health care and go abroad.

For Leonard, “medical tourism” was the only affordable way to get the care he needed. With the help of Planet Hospital, a nonprofit medical tourism agency based in Southern California, he was able to connect with Apollo Hospital in Chennai, India.

As soon as he got off the plane, he was greeted by a guide and set up in an upscale hotel. After his surgery, Leonard was able to travel around the country.

In the end, the cost of the procedure, including travel and post-operation treatment, came to $12,000—less than a fourth of what he would have paid here. But it wasn’t just the costs that impressed Leonard.

“In the U.S., I would have been taken care as a thing,” he says. “In India, I was taken care of as a person.”

Leonard is part of the growing trend of patients seeking more affordable care outside the United States. In 2007, about 750,000 Americans traveled to foreign countries for medical care. That number is expected to jump to 6 million by 2010, according to a study done by business-services company Deloitte.

The jump hasn’t gone unnoticed by Planet Hospital, says president and co-founder Rudy Rupak. Since starting up in 2002, they’ve served more than 1,800 patients—and that’s just the beginning.

“We just scratched the surface of individuals going aboard,” he said. “Lots of employers are interested in sending their employees overseas for medical care.”

Patients can save anywhere from 40 to 80 percent by going overseas. And with insurance and hospital costs “spiraling out of control,” patients, employers and even some health-insurance companies are taking a deeper look into medical tourism.

If it’s sounding too good to be true, that’s because it is. While Rupak’s company makes sure the hospitals and doctors they work with are well-qualified, people who take on the tasks themselves might not find the same quality care.

“Where some people go wrong is trying to find the cheapest price for their procedure,” Rupak said. “This is medical care, you don’t shop for the lowest price.”

Shelly Diaz, spokesperson for the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, warns travelers that health care greatly varies from hospital to hospital in other countries. Patients run higher risks for infection and contracting diseases like hepatitis and HIV.

“We understand people have important reasons for seeking health care abroad, but they have to understand that it is very different from health care in the U.S., and it’s important to talk to your local doctors about the risks and benefits associated with finding treatment overseas.”

And if something goes wrong, patients might have a hard time pressing litigation in foreign countries with weak malpractice laws.

Leonard didn’t consider it a risk, and now he’s more than happy with his experience—even after he ended up with an infection when the wound broke open three weeks later.

But, he says, complications after surgery aren’t unique.

He can’t use a bike or hike just yet, but it’s a big improvement from last year.

“I’ve gotten to the place where I’m no longer using crutches, and my friends are spontaneously telling me that I move much better than I did before the surgery,” he said.