Alta Sierra man travels 8,000 miles for affordable health care
July 31, 2013
It was less than a year ago that Eric Millican noticed his foot "flopping" in a strange way when he went out on his routine walks. Retired from IT work and real estate, the San Francisco native said he moved to Alta Sierra in 2011 to simplify his life, and he kept a log of his long walks.
But soon after noticing the change in his foot, he began to experience lost mobility and balance issues.
"Within a month, I got the feeling I could easily fall over for no reason," he said. "I also had numbness in my hand."
A year shy of his 65th birthday, Millican — who did not have health insurance — was determined to delay a medical evaluation until Medicare kicked in the following year. But his deteriorating condition forced him to seek out care, and consequently, a general practitioner's vague interpretation of his MRI was deemed "not good" and "serious problems."
Eager for more information, Millican asked to be referred to a neurologist.
"I told them I wanted a diagnosis," he said. "When I told them I didn't have insurance, they never called me back."
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With his body continuing to deteriorate, Millican said he waited a full month to get an appointment with a physical medical physician, who told him his condition was a "medical emergency."
He was diagnosed with cervical spondylotic myelopathy. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, cervical spondylotic myelopathy is the most common cause of spinal cord dysfunction in people 55 years and older. The academy states that CSM "can cause compression of the spinal cord. Symptoms often develop insidiously and are characterized by neck stiffness, arm pain, numbness in the hands and weakness of the hands and legs. The differential diagnosis includes any condition that can result in myelopathy such as multiple sclerosis, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and masses (such as metastatic tumors) that press on the spinal cord."
Panicked, Millican asked the physician what he should do, considering his apparent need for surgery and lack of insurance.
"The doctor told me that if I got to the point where I lost all my bodily functions, I could lie on the ground out in front of the UC Davis Spine Center, and they would have to take me," said Millican in disbelief. "I was not going to wait until that happened."
Millican decided to take matters into his own hands and began researching "medical tourism," a growing trend where patients seek treatment in other areas of the world at a lower cost.
According to Patients Beyond Borders, an organization that tracks medical tourism trends internationally, an estimated 900,000 Americans will travel outside the United States for medical care this year alone. Patients' savings can be from 25 to 90 percent, based on the country and procedure, the organization estimates, and due to growing popularity, the U.S.-based Joint Commission International has launched rigorous international accreditation standards. Nearly 500 medical facilities around the world now have JCI accreditation.
"I did my research online," said Millican. "I found the best surgeon, asked for his CV, number of surgeries per month, per year, outcomes, cost, etc. They asked for my medical records and MRI."
The best surgeon stood out — Dr. Sajan Hegde of Apollo Hospitals in Chennai, India. He had studied in France, Germany and his home country of India.
In May, Millican had his visa and was on a plane to India. He was met at the airport by members of an organization called International Patient Services, which took him directly to the hospital.
"Before long, they had a new MRI, blood and urine panels — all the screening was done, and language was never an issue," he said. "The doctors said, 'You have what we thought you had.'"
In less than 24 hours, Millican was in surgery, followed by two nurses monitoring only him while in recovery.
"I was treated like a special guest," said Millican. "I got the feeling they actually cared."
A day later, he said he was discharged and spent a week in a nearby five-star hotel, where the physical therapist and patient services employees monitored his progress.
"I noticed immediate improvement in my walking, and I was weaned off pain pills," said Millican. "I began to feel sad for the people who delay surgery for the sole reason that it costs too much."
The surgery cost Millican 500,000 rupees, which today translates into roughly $8,431 U.S. dollars.
Similar procedures in the U.S. are estimated at $50,000 to $80,000.
"Dr. Hegde asked me for X-rays three months after the surgery," said Millican. "I was happy with their follow-up."
Millican says American doctors are forced to inject a "business side" to their practices, which detracts from patients' real needs.
"Fear colors the judgment of American doctors," he said. "This is a litigious society. It's not patient-centered. Our medical system is not available to many of those without insurance or the under-insured. Medical tourism offers some an option to receive quality medical treatment at a reasonable cost."
Nonetheless, Millican says he will seek follow-up care stateside in September — when he turns 65 and is finally eligible for Medicare.
"I'm feeling a lot better, but I need to monitor my condition," he said. "Maybe this time, I'll be able to go to UC Davis."
To contact Staff Writer Cory Fisher, email Cory@theunion.com or call 530-477-4203.
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