Chi­nese spur med­i­cal tourism in US

The US is en­joy­ing a record num­ber of tourists from China, but not all are com­ing to see well-known sites. Some have come for med­i­cal treat­ments they can­not get at home, re­ports Lia Zhu from San Fran­cisco and Amy He from New York.

China Daily (Canada) - - DEPTH -

When the tu­mor was first di­ag­nosed, I was very up­set and thought I was go­ing to die,” says Mengyuan, a Chi­nese woman in a video posted by Cedars Si­nai Med­i­cal Cen­ter on Youku, a ma­jor video web­site in China.

The 24- year- old from Shang­hai re­ceived treat­ment for her brain tu­mor at the Los An­ge­les-based hospi­tal last year. She was for­tu­nate that the tu­mor was be­nign and the pro­ce­dure fo­cused a very pre­cise dose of ra­di­a­tion on it with­out mak­ing new in­ci­sions or re­quir­ing gen­eral anes­the­sia. The treat­ment is said to have a 90 per­cent prob­a­bil­ity of pre­vent­ing such a tu­mor from com­ing back in her life­time.

Like Mengyuan, more pa­tients from China are drawn to hos­pi­tals in the United States to seek ad­vanced treat­ments for can­cer and other se­ri­ous ill­nesses.

Though there is no data in­di­cat­ing how many Chi­nese go over­seas for med­i­cal treat­ment, var­i­ous sources es­ti­mate that more than 3,000 Chi­nese pa­tients came to the US last year for med­i­cal care, and about three quar­ters of them sought treat­ment for can­cer — the most com­mon ones in­clud­ing lung,

Com­pe­ti­tion among US hos­pi­tals for Chi­nese pa­tients is heat­ing up as they flood the US mar­ket, par­tic­u­larly lung can­cer pa­tients from large in­dus­trial cen­ters like Bei­jing and Guangzhou in South China’s Guang­dong prov­ince, said Josef Wood­man, CEO of Pa­tients Be­yond Borders, a com­pany that pub­lishes med­i­cal travel guides.

Right time

In Novem­ber 2014, Koerner went to Bei­jing and Shang­hai, where he met with Chi­nese doc­tors and hos­pi­tals, as well as re­fer­ral agen­cies. “We felt that the time was right for Cedars-Si­nai to get in­volved in de­vel­op­ing that mar­ket,” he said. In July 2015, an of­fice was opened in Shang­hai for po­ten­tial pa­tients.

The global mar­ket for med­i­cal tourism is es­ti­mated at $55 bil­lion an­nu­ally and grow­ing at a rate of 15 per­cent to 25 per­cent a year as the world pop­u­la­tion is ag­ing and be­com­ing more af­flu­ent at rates that sur­pass the avail­abil­ity of qual­ity health­care re­sources, ac­cord­ing to Pa­tients Be­yond Borders.

Highly ranked hos­pi­tals in the US have ex­pe­ri­enced a rise in med­i­cal tourism in re­cent years. Mas­sachusetts Gen­eral Hospi­tal in Bos­ton, which tops US News & World Re­port’s Best Hos­pi­tals list, said it has about 8,000 in­ter­na­tional pa­tients an­nu­ally. Bei­jing Saint Lucia Con­sult­ing, a ma­jor med­i­cal tourism agency, opened a Bos­ton of­fice in 2013 for Chi­nese pa­tients go­ing to the hospi­tal and other med­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties in the city.

“Spe­cial­ized and well-de­vel­oped pro­ce­dures and spe­cial­ized treat­ment that have not been avail­able in China are why Chi­nese pa­tients come to the US,” said Spencer Koerner, med­i­cal di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for In­ter­na­tional Health and Telemedicine at Cedars-Si­nai “For ex­am­ple, in some of the min­i­mally in­va­sive surg­eries, our car­di­ol­o­gists can re­place a heart valve with­out hav­ing to ac­tu­ally op­er­ate on the pa­tient. They do it through blood ves­sels.”

There are also med­i­ca­tions ap­proved by the US Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion not yet ap­proved in China. “So if a pa­tient wants to get a spe­cial tar­geted ther­apy, then they would have to come here for that un­til they get ap­proved in China,” Koerner said.

Other fac­tors re­lat­ing to China’s health­care in­fras­truc­ture also play a role, ac­cord­ing to Yumi Gu, a Shang­hai-based med­i­cal-tourism con­sul­tant.

“Many of the late-stage can­cer pa­tients are re­jected by hos­pi­tals,” she said. “More of­ten than not, the pa­tients, even if they are ac­cepted, find it dif­fi­cult to find a bed or they are not happy with the ser­vice. Usu­ally doc­tors don’t bother com­mu­ni­cat­ing with pa­tients about their cases un­less the pa­tients have ‘spe­cial con­nec­tions.’”

In ad­di­tion, due to un­der-pre­scrib­ing of pain killers, many ter­mi­nally ill pa­tients suf­fer a lot from pain, said Gu. “So de­spite ex­pen­sive costs of the US hos­pi­tals, pa­tients would rather seek more re­spect­ful treat­ment,” she said, not­ing that none of her clients had ever ex­pressed con­cerns about money.

The costs vary from case to case, but gen­er­ally a sur­gi­cal pro­ce­dure, like hav­ing a brain tu­mor re­moved, costs $120,000 at Cedars-Si­nai, ac­cord­ing to Koerner. In China, the cost is only around 50,000 yuan ($7,600).

The com­pe­ti­tion

For com­plex treat­ment, like chemo­ther­apy or ra­di­a­tion ther­apy, the costs at any hospi­tal in the US can be $200,000 to $300,000, he said.

While med­i­cal cen­ters, such as the Mayo Clinic, MD An­der­son and the Cleve­land Clinic, are be­gin­ning to com­pete on rep­u­ta­tion, cities like Los An­ge­les, San Fran­cisco and New York have the added ben­e­fit of large Chi­nese pop­u­la­tions, Wood­man said.

Med­i­cal trav­el­ers tend to visit des­ti­na­tions that not only of­fer ex­cel­lent med­i­cal care, but cul­tural fa­mil­iar­ity as well, so a Chi­nese res­i­dent with a fam­ily in Los An­ge­les would be more likely to choose a nearby hospi­tal within the re­gion, par­tic­u­larly in an area like South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, which of­fers so much choice in qual­ity med­i­cal care, he ex­plained. To pro­mote Los An­ge­les as a med­i­cal tourism des­ti­na­tion, the ex­ec­u­tives of five area hos­pi­tals — Cedars Si­nai, Chil­dren’s Hospi­tal Los An­ge­les, City of Hope, Keck School of Medicine of USC and UCLA Health — joined Los An­ge­les Mayor Eric Garcetti on a trip to Guangzhou in late 2014, where they signed a Mem­o­ran­dum of Un­der­stand­ing (MoU) to at­tract more Chi­nese med­i­cal tourists to the re­gion. All th­ese hos­pi­tals have made sim­pli­fied Chi­nese avail­able on their web­sites’ in­ter­na­tional pa­tient-ser­vices pages, and of­fer im­por­tant an­cil­lary ser­vices for the vis­it­ing pa­tients. “This ef­fort was to help peo­ple re­al­ize that they don’t have to go to Bos­ton or Hous­ton (for med­i­cal care). Since two thirds of the Chi­nese peo­ple who visit the US come though Los An­ge­les, we want peo­ple in China to know that we are a real med­i­cal des­ti­na­tion with a lot of med­i­cal ex­per­tise here,” said Koerner. “The fact that five com­pet­ing hos­pi­tals are com­ing to­gether to­ward achiev­ing a com­mon goal is quite unique and promis­ing. It ap­pears th­ese med­i­cal cen­ters are fo­cus­ing not only on the pa­tient but im­por­tant af­fil­i­a­tions with Chi­nese hos­pi­tals, physi­cians groups, med­i­cal travel fa­cil­i­ta­tors, and more,” Wood­man said.

LA’s ap­peal

“Los An­ge­les’ en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try, fa­vor­able weather and tourism-friendly cul­ture also help them com­pete with other US re­gions for the Chi­nese pa­tients,” he added.

The ef­forts have be­gun to pay off. A year ago, Cedars-Si­nai saw only 30 pa­tients and this year they ex­pect to see 100.

“We are get­ting a lot of in­quiries now through so­cial me­dia chan­nels like WeChat and Weibo ac­count,” said Koerner. The WeChat chan­nel was launched early this year, through which users have ac­cess to on­line videos of pa­tients’ tes­ti­monies and doc­tors’ in­ter­views, as well as health­care tips.

“We have had five pa­tients con­tact us through WeChat in the first month af­ter they saw the posts and were in­ter­ested in hav­ing their cases re­viewed,” he said.

The hospi­tal has more than 300 em­ploy­ees with Chi­nese lan­guage skills. A co­or­di­nat­ing nurse, with the help of an in­ter­preter, is as­signed to work with ev­ery pa­tient from China.

“As soon as the num­ber (of Chi­nese pa­tients) builds up more, we’ll add Chi­nese nurses to help co­or­di­nate,” Koerner said.

Con­tact the writer at li­azhu@ chi­nadai­


Go-abroad ex­am­i­na­tion.

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