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Overseas care a healthy alternative for wealthy

By Shan Juan (China Daily)

10:17, June 14, 2013

While millions of Chinese tourists seek exotic experiences on foreign shores, some are going overseas for health reasons.

A 46-year-old man from Shanghai going by the pseudonym Wang, was diagnosed with lung cancer in June. He went to Massachusetts General Hospital in the United States for treatment.

The treatment and chemotherapy worked, and Wang is now receiving regular examinations in Shanghai.

"It didn't require hospitalization, and the side effects from chemotherapy are far less than in China," he said, adding that he spent $63,000 on his treatment and accommodation in the US.

Cai Qiang, CEO of Saint Lucia Consulting in Beijing, which helped Wang with the treatment, said the company is committed to making the best medical care around the world accessible to Chinese people.

Cai, a physics major, started his business in 2011. He lost partial sight in his left eye as a teenager in China because of what he calls medical negligence. He has lived in Australia for the past 10 years.

Saint Lucia Consulting assists patients in evaluating medical options, choosing specialists, making appointments at top foreign hospitals, completing visa applications, translating medical records and making hotel reservations.

"Our mission is to overcome geographic and linguistic barriers that prevent Chinese from receiving world-class medical care," said Wang Shun, a medical officer at the company.

So far, the company has dozens of top-tier partner hospitals in the US, Britain, Japan, Singapore and South Korea.

"Saint Lucia aims to provide clients with access to state-of-the-art medical services worldwide," Cai said.

That, however, comes at a price. Service fees range from 68,000 to 88,000 yuan ($11,000 to $14,300) for at least one month.

Most patients are wealthy businessmen from Beijing and the provinces of Shanxi and Guangdong, and one customer asked if he should send his mother, who had cancer, to the US for treatment by private jet.

According to Cai, rich people in China have easy access within the country to all the trappings of wealth from top brands to restaurants. But medical care is different.

"Before their experience overseas, they had never expected such quality care and services as they received at foreign hospitals," he said.

To date, they've helped send more than 100 patients for treatment abroad.

According to Wang in Shanghai, hospitals in the US are like cozy hotels, and each doctor consultation usually lasts more than an hour. "There were no crowds, long lines or impatient doctors," he said.

Potential cultural clashes might arise, however. In one case, the family of a late stage cancer patient asked the doctor in Britain to hide the condition from the patient. "That breaks the law there," Cai said. To prevent such problems, his company will inform patients.

At present, Saint Lucia Consulting has more than 20 full-time employees on the mainland and three bureaus in the US, Britain and Germany.

To appeal to Chinese customers, world-famous medical institutions like the MD Anderson Cancer Center in the US began to have Chinese language information on its website. They have also set up teams to help foreign patients, including the Chinese, with doctor appointments and visas.

However, Cai said he does not consider that a challenge to his business.

"I couldn't be happier than to see more Chinese patients getting the best medical treatment worldwide," he said. "I hope Chinese doctors improve their capacity and then help the majority who cannot afford medical tourism with better treatment."

But some medical experts expressed caution over medical tourism, estimated to generate at least $60 billion worldwide.

"Given that medical tourism will probably stay in a regulatory void for a while, patients should be extremely careful choosing the right agency and consult Chinese specialists before making any decision," said Qiu Renzong, a leading bio-ethicist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Chen Wanqing, deputy director of the National Central Cancer Registry and a senior cancer specialist, said he has seen more outbound tourism for cancer treatment among Chinese in recent years.

But he expressed doubt over the necessity of doing this.

For cancer treatment in terms of both surgery and internal medicine, "China could be neck and neck with most developed countries", he said.

However, "overseas hospitals might excel in hospital environment and patient services compared with the usually crowded Chinese hospitals", he said.

Those who can afford it, however, could try overseas, he said.

But "the patient should be careful with the long travel," he added.

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