With the prices of medical care and health insurance in the States being so high, Medical Tourism or Medical Travel is a workable answer for many. Lori Shea is the owner of Guatemala Medical Travel and she shares some very important insights on this conundrum.
Take a look.
Retire Early Lifestyle: Could you tell us a little about your background?
Lori Shea: I have worked in the hospitality industry for 30 years, managing high-quality hotels and restaurants in Washington, D.C., Miami, and Key West, since the 1980s. I started my own consulting company in South Beach, providing operations outlines, training programs, and financial control guidelines for the new, trendy beachfront hotels that were opening then. In my spare time, I have also traveled extensively around the world.
REL: What was your motivation to begin your business of Guatemala Medical Travel?
LS: When I was living on my sailboat in Rio Dulce, Guatemala, I helped some local expat retirees to find medical care in Guatemala City. At a very reasonable price, the level of medical skills and expertise I found there was astounding. The patients, my friends, were amazed to be treated with respect, compassion, and patience by a medical specialist—some said, for the first time in their lives. I recognized this as a valuable resource that more international patients need to know about.
REL: What were the biggest challenges you faced with Guatemala Medical Travel?
LS: The biggest challenge is educating patients about the quality of skills and experience of the Guatemalan doctors, going against their initial resistance to seek out care beyond their hometown in America. Once they experience the care and prices we offer in Guatemala, many of our patients come back three or four times and send their friends here too.
REL: How long have you been in business?
LS: It was three years ago that my friend came here from Key West for cataract surgery for $2,300 after getting a quote of $11,000 in Miami. We talked about creating a business concept to bring other people here too, to get their surgical procedures in Guatemala at unbelievably low prices. It took me three months to research the global industry of medical tourism and to write my website. It went live online in January 2010.
REL: We have been proponents of Medical Travel for two decades now, long before it became a common topic of discussion. Do you find that people still balk at the idea of traveling to a foreign country to received medical care?
LS: Some people simply are not travelers and would prefer to stay home, and pay five times more in medical expenses, than to get on a plane and stay at a nice hotel in a foreign country. People who have traveled extensively and needed health care abroad are well aware that doctors and hospitals in other countries are quite often superior to anything they would find, or could afford, in their home state.
REL: What do you find to be the biggest fear that prevents people from utilizing Medical Tourism?
LS: Patients want to be assured that everything will be comfortable and familiar, just like at home, and it is.
REL: How do you counter those fears? Besides better pricing, what does Guatemala Medical Travel service offer?
LS: Communication and coordination are what we do best. Patients are actually better off coming to Guatemala and having an agent to accompany them as a personal companion, nurse and secretary throughout the whole process. We provide detailed medical progress reports and financial statements, from their arrival to their departure. Every expense is listed and described in English, together with receipts, compiled into one easy-to-understand report. They return home with all of their diagnostic reports, prescriptions, bills and instructions together in one file for easy future reference.
They could never expect to have all that information from a U.S. doctor or hospital, or get that kind VIP treatment at home.
REL: What makes Guatemala Medical Travel different than other Medical Concierge sites that offer Medical Tourism services?
LS: We have spent many hours over the years we have been in business to determine who the absolute best doctors in the country are. We now have longstanding professional relationships with surgeons, hospital, doctors, and dentists that we trust completely.
Other medical tourism companies sell hospital services in many different countries and know nothing about the quality of care that is offered. They sell based on who pays the most for advertising placement and patient referrals. At Guatemala Medical Travel, we live here and work here every day, so we know Guatemalan medical providers better than anyone.
REL: Tell us a little about the staff of doctors with whom you work. Do they speak English? Where have they been trained? Does a patient need to speak Spanish in order to take advantage of the medical services you offer?
LS: We work with about 35 doctors and all of them speak English fluently. It is absolutely essential to have clear communication with your medical provider. I have also brought European patients to a German-speaking gastroenterologist and a French-speaking ENT specialist in Guatemala City.
Guatemalan families send their brightest students to the best universities in the world. In the U.S., they earn degrees from schools like Harvard, Colombia, and Johns Hopkins, and then they are told they have to return to their home countries. We are incredibly fortunate to have extremely well-educated and skilled physicians, with global credentials, right here in Guatemala City.
REL: What about the hospitals that you utilize in your business? You know that people will ask if they are of similar quality that they can find in the States or Canada.
LS: The doctors that we trust and promote are trained in the best schools in the world. They will demand surgical instrumentation, sanitation and support staff to the highest global standards, in their medical facilities. The Guatemalan hospitals in which they practice are on the same par with modern high tech hospitals in Europe, North America, or any other country.
REL: What makes your team of doctors and hospitals with Guatemala Medical Travel different than what someone may find “back home?”
LS: The difference is that doctors in the United States, although they may be very qualified, are not allowed to give care like the Guatemalan doctors do. Without American lawyers, insurance companies, patient quotas, and government restrictions to interfere, Guatemalan doctors are free to spend much more time actually listening to and treating the patient. They can be totally honest about what the patient really needs and does not need, and what they might want to choose as an alternative. U.S. doctors have their hands tied by legal restrictions and are forced to waste your time and money on unnecessary procedures.
REL: What is included in the prices you quote? Are there any hidden fees? I don’t think people would welcome surprises like that. Do you have payment plans or must patients pay up front?
LS: For new patient inquiries, I send them the portion of a bill that was actually paid by a recent patient for the same surgery, so they can clearly see exactly what is included in the package price. The only variation would be for more or different prescription medications, or additional tests or materials that the doctor might require due to that patient’s particular medical history.
Being foreigners here, Americans and Canadians do need to pay in advance because we would have no other way of collecting after the procedure is finished. The GMT agency has many resources and outlets in both countries through which the patient can pay for their medical expenses safely and easily. The patient will return home with all the receipts required to request reimbursement from their insurance company.
REL: It’s one thing to have a crown or dental implant done through Medical Tourism. But what if a patient has a serious condition like cancer or a heart issue? What sort of medical procedures are provided through Guatemala Medical Travel?
LS: The medical director of our cancer radiotherapy center worked at Sloan Kettering in NYC and was medical director of the New Orleans cancer center for 12 years. The chemotherapy specialist treats cancer patients and conducts research studies for the FDA, here in Guatemala. If you need delicate brain or neck surgery, it would be performed by a surgeon who went to Johns Hopkins. Cardiac surgeries are performed every day at our two largest hospitals. The orthopedic specialists here have performed thousands of joint replacements with astounding success rates.
REL: Who does follow up care? What happens if “something goes wrong?” Do your doctors work with the doctors of the patient back in their home country?
LS: Thankfully, nothing has ever “gone wrong” under our care. The local physicians are exceedingly cautious with foreign VIP patients, knowing that the outcome of their work will be a reflection on all the medical providers of Guatemala. In fact, if patients need follow up or further treatment, most prefer to fly back here, instead of trying to get help from an American doctor. The patient leaves Guatemala with a complete file of the entire treatment process. The Guatemalan doctor will gladly phone or email other doctors within hours to work together with them to assure the seamless continuation of care for their patient.
REL: Does someone stay in the hospital after their procedure or do you offer a place for recuperation? What if a spouse or other loved one wants to accompany the patient? Where do they stay?
LS: Sometimes the doctor will require a hospital stay of two or three days. On their release, the patient is driven back to our own Casa Muriel patient recovery house in Antigua. Spouses and friends are always welcome. In June, a family rented all 3 rooms on the first floor of the house, enjoying on-site kitchen and office facilities, and private terraces and gardens that they wouldn’t have in a hotel.
REL: What is the patient’s responsibility in receiving this medical care in a foreign country?
LS: The patient needs to be absolutely honest about their medical history, to help the doctor diagnose and treat them most effectively. They should also buy airline tickets that allow for plenty of time for a full recovery under our care before returning home.
REL: If someone is interested in your services or would like to know more, how can they contact you?
LS: First, look carefully at our website and the video located on our primary page to understand what we do, how, and why. Read over our FAQ page. Email questions to Lori@GuatemalaMedicalTravel.com or agents@GuatemalaMedicalTravel.com and that will get you the most quick and complete response. Also, we have a Miami phone on VOIP so that patients can call us here in Guatemala without making an international long distance call.
We at Retire Early Lifestyle would like to thank Lori of Guatemala Medical Travel for her time and willingness to share her insight and professional opinion on the topic of Medical Tourism.