As Jeff Wheeler recounts his recent trip to Southeast Asia, he mentions the major shoulder surgery he underwent in Thailand almost as an afterthought.
Wheeler of Westport Island returned Sunday night from a three-week trip that began with sightseeing in Vietnam and Cambodia and concluded with a full replacement of his left shoulder at a Bangkok hospital.
The only major complication was meteorological, not medical. Bad weather prevented a planned stop at a popular tourist destination in northeast Vietnam, a seascape of limestone pillars in the Gulf of Tonkin, Wheeler said.
“The only disappointment was not getting to Ha Long Bay,” he said. “But that’s the nature of travel, you take the bitter with the sweet.”
Wheeler, a 59-year-old retired construction boilermaker, traveled across the globe as a “medical tourist,” lured by far less costly treatment than he could find in the U.S. He’s among a few hundred thousand Americans expected to travel overseas this year in search of affordable medical care, from nose jobs to root canals to joint replacements. Fueled by rising health care costs in the U.S., medical tourism can open the door to high-quality treatments at steep discounts.
Wheeler paid roughly $9,000 for his shoulder replacement in Thailand, about 80 percent less than he would have shelled out here at home.
The growing industry caters primarily to the uninsured and people with insufficient insurance, or plans that don’t cover certain elective procedures or carry painfully high deductibles.
Staff at Piyavate Hospital in Bangkok, where Wheeler underwent surgery on Aug. 13 were attentive and professional, he said.
“I think they were actually more thorough because they didn’t want to have a Westerner come over and get a bad result with surgery,” Wheeler said.
Representatives from Planet Hospital, the Calabasas, Calif., medical tourism company that arranged his trip, met with him and assigned a local woman to shepherd him through the process, he said. Wheeler also had his other shoulder X-rayed — he may return for a second surgery for a possible rotator cuff problem — and had a tooth filled by a Thai dentist while he was there, he said.
“My shoulder’s causing me a little bit of pain but not bad,” he said. “Everything’s healing well.”
Those who shy away from the idea of seeking out medical care beyond America’s borders might be surprised to see the top-notch care available overseas, Wheeler said.
“It worked for me,” he said. “Everybody has to assess their own needs and what they’re capable of and what they’re comfortable with, but I think if they get outside their comfort zone a little bit they’ll find some benefit in it. A lot of people, they picture some kind of rat-infested, falling-down building with a guy who’s got not much medical training, but they’re wrong.”
Medical tourism carries some risk. As with medical procedures performed in the U.S., complications can arise.
In 2009, the American College of Surgeons issued a statement warning consumers about the risks of undergoing medical treatment abroad, including variability in medical professionals’ training, differences in the standards to which medical institutions are held, potential stress from being away from family and friends, and little recourse if an injury occurs.
Now that Wheeler’s home, he’s checking around for a local physical therapist while he waits six weeks for his shoulder to heal, he said.
He has been looking through photos of his trip — visits to the presidential palace in Hanoi, the tunnels of Cu Chi, an immense network of underground tunnels in Ho Chi Minh City, and a floating village in Cambodia teeming with hundreds of types of fish.
In the French quarter of Hanoi, he spotted residents performing tai chi during the early morning hours, he said.
“One thing that really impressed me is they’re very fit people,” Wheeler said.
He’d like to return one day to visit Phuket and finally make it to Ha Long Bay, Wheeler said. He might throw in another shoulder surgery, too.
“For me it’s the way to go, have a little vacation and have your medical care,” he said.