Surgical Auctions: Going Once, Going Twice — Going to Medical Tourism

As costs escalate and healthcare reform sweeps across the insurance landscape, “going once, and going twice” sounds more like something out of EBay than ER protocol.

But, surgical auctions are exactly what some patients are looking at to take care of their health conditions and, in return, some doctors are more than willing to outbid each other to attain their services.

“People are saying we want more free market with price transparency and there’s demand for that out there,” said Dr. Marty Makary, assistant professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins University and author of “Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won’t Tell You and How Transparency Can Revolutionize Health Care.” “If you’re paying more, maybe you’re getting more quality, but people are hungry for price transparency out there in some fraction of the healthcare market.”

Makary, a keynote speaker at the 6th World Medical Tourism & Global Healthcare Congress, Nov. 3-6, in Las Vegas, said savvy healthcare shoppers are beginning to find these bargains through medical tourism, an opportunity in which patients travel – domestically or internationally – for affordable, top-notch procedures or treatments that they can’t find readily available in their neighborhoods.

Congress Keynote Speaker

“Up to 1 million people travel overseas for medical procedures,” said Makary, who will join some 2,000 delegates – hospital administrators, doctors and clinicians, government policymakers, insurance executives, and tourism and travel entities to share experiences and offer solutions to access and affordability issues. “People are frustrated with the healthcare system because it’s one of the only businesses where you can’t get a bid on a service. You don’t even know what you paid for afterward.”

Perry Hunt knows exactly what he paid. But, first he who was in constant pain and needed hip replacement surgery.

The Oregon resident said his frustration grew when his insurance wouldn’t cover the procedure. He estimated that if he paid out-of-pocket, hip replacement would have cost him $70,000. Instead, Hunt found the website MediBid, on which doctors auction their services. For a $25 fee, Hunt summarized what he needed done. A doctor then replied with a bid for $21,000, much less than what he expected to pay.

“I read a lot of reviews and every review that I read was positive, so I knew that this was going to be my guy,” said Hunt.

That guy was Dr. Adam Harris, who had been out bid by $6,000, but because the San Antonio orthopedist requires his patients to undergo a full evaluation before surgery, he was chosen for the job. In the end, Hunt got not only the value he asked for, but – more importantly — what he paid for. As advertised, his medical bills totaled $21,000 – or $50,000 less — a substantial savings.

In too many cases, finding bang for buck is left up to the patient. However, resources like the Medical Tourism Association® are working to bring quality metrics to the forefront for patients and healthcare providers alike.

Internet Bidding

“The idea of bidding on the internet may sound great to some patients, but cheaper medicine does not always mean good healthcare,” said Renée-Marie Stephano, president of the Medical Tourism Association®. “Patients shopping for healthcare — not only overseas, but for any procedure out of their comfort zone — need to know that the providers they chose have been vetted by related and credible organizations themselves.”

Even though there’s plenty of money to save online, critics fear patients who shop for healthcare based on price alone will naturally create a market for providers to cut corners.

“I’m sure there are folks out there doing quality procedures on (MediBid) websites, but you don’t know,” Makary said to host Matt Lauer and an NBC Today Show audience. “You’re flying blind.”

Makary said he expects nontraditional methods for choosing healthcare will continue to expand, but patients need to be prepared to ask questions – like how many surgeries have been performed — just as they would for any other procedure.

“I’m concerned about any website that doesn’t list quality metrics,” he said. “What’s the back up? What happens if something goes wrong? Do you have another surgeon or partner or another hospital you can be transferred to? Ask a nurse that doesn’t work with the doctor, who would you have to do your surgery?”

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