Touring Health Care Abroad in El Salvador

As I boarded my three-plus hour flight from Atlanta to El Salvador, I received a high-five from one of the flight attendants who is a proud YSU alumnus and saw the unmistakable red block “Y” on my polo. This was going to be a good trip.

Three weeks before, I was contacted by the Ministry of Health in El Salvador and its partner, SkyMedicus. They have established a Health Care Abroad network and were looking for partners from the U.S. to vet their facilities and physicians.

Health Care Abroad, or as it has been referred to in the past as “medical tourism,” involves an insured individual and sometimes his spouse traveling to another country to receive health care. Given the cost of living in other countries, having a medical procedure performed abroad can save from 30% to 80% including travel and meals. In addition to the savings, many patients are willing to travel to receive care and procedures such as stem cell therapy that might be unavailable in their home country.

You’re probably skeptical. So was I. Most people I told about the trip responded negatively at the thought of being in El Salvador, never mind the idea of seeking medical care in a foreign country.

On the first day, we toured a dental practice that performs complex procedures such as dental implants, crowns, veneers and periodontics. Dr. Rafael Lorenzana and his team were so concerned with quality that they decided to bring in-house the entire supply chain for their practice – and they source 100% of their supplies directly from the United States.

We watched as a member of his team used a CAD program to create a dental implant that would be designed, manufactured and implanted under one roof. Lorenzana received a diploma from The American Board of Prosthodontists, a distinction reserved for the top 5% of the industry practitioners worldwide.

Later that afternoon, we toured the Hospital de Diagnostico, which is the largest network of private health services in El Salvador. The complex includes the hospital, an imaging center, a neuroscience institute and an international cancer center. Perhaps most interesting was learning that this hospital has served as the emergency medical facility for visiting dignitaries including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

The patient rooms more closely resemble a hotel than a hospital. Each has a private balcony overlooking the countryside, a leather recliner and a sofa that converts into a bed for family members staying with loved ones. Families are encouraged to stay with the patient as long as they like.

On the second day, we visited a stem cell clinic operated by Dr. Rodrigo Simán. It employs a much less invasive approach to stem cell therapy by using a combination of the patient’s blood and fat as opposed to the more painful and complex bone marrow options. Patients are able to receive treatment in a single day and leave with a Band-Aid as the only evidence of a procedure. Upon reviewing the results in treating multiple sclerosis, macular degeneration, autism and a host of other conditions, it’s stunning that the U.S. hasn’t taken a more active interest in this type of treatment.

Admittedly, I was skeptical in advance of my trip to El Salvador. I had no doubts that the cost of health care would be significantly lower than in the U.S. But when it comes to your health, you should not sacrifice the outcome for savings. I left with an entirely new appreciation for Health Care Abroad. I met physicians who trained in the U.S. and all over the world, many of whom still teach at U.S. medical schools.

The cultural differences and the emphasis on the patient and care environment are striking. There are pros and cons to every provider relationship but Health Care Abroad can no longer be ignored and should be discussed as a covered benefit for employer-sponsored coverage. It can produce equal or better outcomes at a fraction of the cost and provide employees access to the best care on the planet

The author, Bob Gearhart Jr., is a partner with DCW Group in Boardman.

Pictured: Bob Gearhart Jr., second from left, visits in El Salvador with, from left, Tom Garner from SkyMedicus, Dr. Eduardo Tobar and John Sbrocco from Questige Consulting. 

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