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It Heals Better in Hebrew

Yael Ehrenpreis Meyer

If a person can shop for books and shoes online, why not do the same for hip replacements and cataract removals? Why not indeed, agrees Israel’s medical community — which is leveraging its outstanding reputation in the medical field to garner a larger piece of the lucrative pie of one of today’s fast-growing industries: medical tourism.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Walking through the expansive halls of the Sheba Medical Center, one can’t help but be impressed by the Middle East’s most comprehensive hospital — which, with 8,000 employees, is larger than some Israeli towns. At the end of the corridor is the entrance to the Sheba International Medicine Department, where one is struck not only by the modern décor but by something conspicuous in its absence: Hebrew. All the signs are in English and Russian. While the parents of two small children are conversing in Italian, the multilingual staff goes about their day, which will include caring for the over 100 “medical tourists” and their family members who enter these doors each month, seeking care for acute and long-term health issues ranging from hip replacements to birth defects, from cardiac surgery to fertility treatments.

Those suffering from illness have always searched for good health in far-off places. Legends such as the “Flower with a Golden Heart,” in which a young man crosses land and sea to find a cure for his sick mother, as well as tales of the search for the mythical “fountain of youth,” have been told for centuries. The Roman Caesars and noblemen visited mineral water “Roman baths” throughout their Empire, and hundreds of years later, during the 19th century, upper-class tourists throughout Europe, including some of the prominent rabbanim of the time, began once again to seek out the restorative powers of the fresh mountain air, hot springs, and “water cures” offered at the region’s neoclassical spas and health resorts.

But “medical tourism,” the growing practice of traveling across international borders to obtain specific medical treatments, is a relatively new arrival to the global scene, an industry created as the result of the rapid development of two leading industries developed primarily during the 20th century — tourism and healthcare — with the added boost given to the field by the Internet-based information revolution. As the world has become increasingly smaller, and geography is no longer seen as an obstacle to those, for example, who live in one place yet work across the ocean via computer, the concept of traveling to another country to receive medical treatment has become a viable option for tens of thousands of individuals in North America, Europe, and the African continent, among others.

Their reasons for traveling for treatment vary: US citizens often go in search of lower-cost options for expensive procedures; Canadians and Western Europeans aim to receive medical procedures without the long waiting period necessitated by their socialized medical systems; Eastern Europeans and Africans are more often searching for a level of technology and therapy not obtainable in their home countries. The places they go vary as well: Costa Rica, Colombia, and Cuba in South America; India, Singapore, Thailand, China, and South Korea in Asia; and Jordan and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East.

A worldwide competition has emerged, with global advertising of available services as a key element; local medical tourism guidebooks are even available at the airport in such countries as South Korea. Each of these nations provides its health care services for a different price — some almost unbelievably low. But their standards of hygiene, safety, and technological advancement vary as well. Thus, having identified which hospitals offer the treatment they are looking for, medical tourists must weigh the price they will have to pay against the level of care they can expect. It is at this intersection of lower price and higher standards that Israel stands out: while prices are higher than in the Far East, the nation’s medical system has a reputation for the most advanced technology.


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