Medical Tourism: Here are 5 Tips To Help Find Your Doctor Abroad

Seeking Medical Tourism? Here are 5 Tips To Help Find Your Doctor Abroad

The Irony:

It takes one to know one, right?

The shoemakers children run barefoot, of course.

A physical therapist (specializing in working with surfers) with a significant back injury - argh.

What started as a work injury grew into a nag, which grew into a pain, which ultimately has grown into a moderate level of chronic pain, debilitation, and limited ability to surf.

The whole situation has kind of sucked. Holy shit it has really sucked, but I’ve learned so much from the experience and I think I better share the story because I know there are people, surfers, humans that are still seeking answers, swallowing fist fulls of Advil to just be able to try and get in the water, never mind sleep or walk.

A Shitty Situation

On December 2nd, whilst working at my ‘day job’ in the local skilled nursing facility, I was transferring a patient with another nurse to a shower chair, when the patient lost bowel and bladder continence, covering the floor with excrement. Unfortunately for me, midway through transferring this end-of-life stage man from the edge of the bed to the wheelchair, I slipped in the mess. In efforts to make sure that this 6’4 man didn’t end up on the ground, my back basically took one for the team. Shitty situation, eh?

Five months after the fact, I had not really gotten any measurable medical care as the bulk of it has been denied by the work comp insurance. I have been to deposition to state my case, but the company I work for chooses not to settle things. They had left me hanging, no medical care, no options, not able to really work at my full capacity, and surfing - what was that? The cornerstones in my life such as surfing and growing my private practice seemed nearly a distant memory at this time. Nagging depression has been creeping in. My marriage has been rocky. My confidence in my ability to earn a living totally diminished.

Not Surfing and Not Living

So what’s one to do? Rot? Cry? Wallow? No thanks, had enough of that. 

Here are the 5 Steps I Took When Finding My Doctor: 

  1. I determined what goals I was trying to achieve by going out of the country for my care. In my case I was looking for a clean, safe, reputable place that I could get the help I needed and not break the bank. I knew that I could speak Spanish as an alternative form of communication, but knew I didn't want that to be the only way I could communicate with my doctor. Having spent some time traveling in Central America in my past, I decided on Panama.                                       
  2. I took matters into my own hands, and armed with MRIs and XRays (both discs and reports), I boarded a plane headed for Panama City, Panama to get some medical care. I found two neurocirgones via word of mouth through social media connections via friends that I trusted (note not online thanks to the censorship our internet has now it can be very difficult to ‘Google’ the doctors you may want to try and see). I triangulated the referrals that I received with searching Gooogle.scholar for their research work, as well as reading up on reviews from other patients.                                                                 
  3. I set up two consultations with the two different doctors at two different hospitals, just to see what each one would say. Each doctor spent about an hour with me, discussed and reviewed every imaging study, reviewed my old operative report, and took time to explain to me why my symptoms were the way they were, and where the corresponding pathology was showing up on the imaging studies.          
  4. Each doctor provided me a written estimate for the expenses of the procedure, giving me three different choices/prices based at three different hospitals to do the procedure.  All I had to do was decide which hospital based on proximity to my hotel, cleanliness, and which doctor I felt best understood my case.                                
  5. I weighed out my connection with the doctor, each doctor's experience, cost and quality of each hospital presented to me, and booked my procedure. Then I booked my accommodations, transportation, and I made sure I had either a friend or family member there with me to make sure that I was safe/okay/etc. for the day of the procedure. 

Cost

So after arriving in Panama, having spent now $150.00 total for two 1-hour consultations with spine specialists, $483.00 for the flight, and $600.00 for the week in an AirBnb in the city I was finally starting to see some progress and get some answers - for a grand total of $1233.00.  

Keep in mind, my end goal was to GET THE CARE I COULDN'T GET IN THE USA, because of my 'work-comp'/insurance situation. The cost factor was just a bonus. If I could have found a doctor that was willing to insert him/herself as a cash pay provider in my messed up work-comp situation, I would have paid upwards of $6000.00 for the injections alone, never mind the initial $350.00 consultation fee to see the doc for about 10 minutes prior to the appointment.

TREATMENT

The injections that I sought bought me time and pain management, but ultimately, the goal of the injection was to take the edge off the pain that I couldn't get ahead of. Each of the exiting nerve roots on either side of my L4/5 vertebrae were nearly totally occluded by hypertrophic/arthritic bone formation as well as a nasty recurrent disc herniation. So essentially, even though the pain injection helped, the disc and nerves were compromised enough so that I had to take further steps with surgical intervention.

The benefit to creating a relationship with a doctor outside of the US, however, is that they know you are traveling from afar to seek care, and in my experience went above and beyond to help. For me, my doctor would email me personally, give me options, work with my schedule, and even gave me his cell phone number in case there was an emergency. 

About 6 weeks after receiving the injections in my spine, I had to move forwards with a lumbar decompression surgery. My surgical experience in Panama was excellent. Pain management during and after the surgery was based far less in narcotic use than other surgeries I'd had in the US, and as a result, I didn't get nauseated or vomit, and was able to get out of the hospital and go home a week sooner than planned. 

Seeking care outside of the US isn't for everyone but it is an option, and with a little bit of planning, can be done for a fraction of the cost. Other considerations you may want to make is checking with your insurance policy to see if they offer coverage outside of the US, and/or purchasing a global insurance policy like GeoBlue (I think my premium was about 169.00 for the year) for any 'accidental-emergency' care that you may need.

Afterwords

Statistically 80% of Americans suffer from back pain at some point in their lives, and next to hand injuries, a low back injury is the second most common work-related injury. Losing the ability to do your job, provide for your family and have a daily sense of freedom without pain is enough. Being painted as a fraud when you legitimately sustained a work injury is humiliating. Losing the ability to surf is one thing, but losing your identity due to a process like this is something completely different.

The experience has helped me to shift my views on how I will continue with my practice Surfer’s Edge Physical Therapy. I will operate more holistically by offering a peaceful and calm environment that allows my clients to have some mental clarity. I have expanded on my practice by taking life coaching classes to help with progressing my clients mindset by removing blocks. I intend to refer business to Panamanian doctors for those of my clients who are looking for an alternative.

This journey has just begun, but please reach out at [email protected] if you are interested in hopping off the hamster wheel, spending a week in warm weather and warm water, with the guidance of a physical therapist/ex-pat who just so happens to know a thing or two about recovering from an injury and getting back to surf.

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