Friday, June 14, 2024

Surgery In Paradise: Canadians Explore Cayman Islands for Destination Healthcare

Angela Bugera was desperate for a plan B. The Edmonton-based gallery owner needed a hip replacement and until she got one, her quality of life would be poor. At age 51, she was already using a cane and eventually neared the point where she required a wheelchair. Trying to run a business while in pain was far from ideal. She needed a solution, and fast.

Unfortunately, if she was to have surgery in Canada, Bugera would have to wait six months to see an orthopedic surgeon and perhaps another year to have the procedure. The only feasible option was to leave the country and have it done elsewhere.

More than 63,000 Canadians travelled outside the country for healthcare in 2016, according to the Fraser Institute, with an estimated 40,000 of them from Ontario and BC alone. Those numbers represent an almost 40 percent increase over the previous year.

The Healthy City surgical team.

Bugera considered going to the United States for her hip replacement surgery, but it would cost between $40,000 and $60,000 US. She looked at Europe, too, but didn’t want to be that far from home. As she searched for options, she stumbled across Health City, a 104-bed, state-of-the-art hospital located in the Cayman Islands, opened in 2004 by acclaimed Indian heart surgeon Dr. Devi Shetty, who was also Mother Teresa’s personal physician. It offers services related to everything from cardiology and spinal surgery to neurology and executive health checks. She filled out the online contact form and hoped for the best to get answers to her questions about cost, safety and quality of care.

“I felt ignored, and I could not afford to wait any longer for my surgery.”

“I was desperate and frustrated,” she recalls. “I could function for only about six hours before I needed to go home and sleep. I refused to take serious pain medicine. I was getting nowhere with the healthcare providers in Alberta. I felt ignored, and I could not afford to wait any longer for my surgery.”

Within a few days, Bugera was talking to the staff at Health City Cayman’s Canadian office, located in Hamilton, ON. Within a couple of weeks, she was video chatting for an hour with the surgeon who had been sent her file – even before she had paid anything. After careful vetting, she decided this was the route she wanted to go. Health City could do her surgery in three weeks. That was too soon for her, so she committed to go in two months’ time.

Pick ups and drop offs are part of the service.

“It was the best surgical experience I could imagine,” Bugera says now, two years post-surgery. “It was seamless from start to finish.” She spent five days in the hospital to recuperate and to undergo physiotherapy. All the while, she had a hospital-appointed concierge to advocate for her, take her to all tests and appointments, including a personal pickup at the airport, where Health City patients get fast-tracked through customs.

She and her husband stayed a total of three weeks, turning their medical journey into a vacation. “I had a really good time,” she adds. “I felt less pain almost immediately. We were able to go road tripping around the island and sightsee. My new hip, with six titanium replacement parts, allowed me to get into a car easily without discomfort.”

Her bill for the surgery was $18,000 CDN. In total (with flights, rental car, accommodations, etc.), the cost was $25,000 CDN.

Though her experience seeking healthcare abroad was a very positive one, Bugera got pushback from some of the patrons of her art gallery – many of whom were medical professionals. “Some were annoyed,” she says. “Some felt I was setting a bad example, while others made political arguments around paying for healthcare.”

“Physicians were skeptical at first, but they acknowledge that wait times are too long for patients as expensive surgeries keep getting bumped and provincial healthcare budgets are cut.”

That lack of understanding and acceptance is something that Nicola Banks has witnessed firsthand as the patient care manager for Health City’s Canadian office, established three years ago. “Physicians were sceptical at first, but they acknowledge that wait times are too long for patients as expensive surgeries keep getting bumped and provincial healthcare budgets are cut,” she says. “Now, Health City is getting referrals from physicians who are talking about it with patients. At first, doctors would discuss [referral] only if patients asked.”

The average Canadian visitor is 67, with age ranges from 40 to 88. The typical client is in pain and desperately looking for solutions. Many don’t know that there are alternatives to waiting, but it likely means leaving the country for care. Cayman Islands is a relatively new player on the destination healthcare scene, and it’s well poised to snag business from other countries such as Mexico, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic, which have been drawing Canadian patients for a longer period. Because it is a British Overseas Territory, visitors coming for healthcare like the fact that Cayman is an English-speaking country and that it is very safe and clean. Having gorgeous beaches and being known as the culinary capital of the Caribbean doesn’t hurt, either. Even Health City patients have described its hospital food as “amazing.”

For many would-be patients on foreign soil, it comes down to money. Provincial healthcare plans don’t cover procedures done out of the country. Duane Firminger from St. George, ON was looking at a two- to three-year wait for back surgery to address a herniated disc, which is considered elective surgery. If his condition was not treated, he was at risk for more severe nerve damage from disc compression. “All I could do was lie on the floor,” says the 48-year-old. “I felt like I was 90 and could move only with extreme pain.” When a doctor in Hamilton sent him a flyer about Health City, he leapt at the chance to find out more.

“Money was a concern, for sure,” Firminger explains. “But I’m fortunate that my employer was willing to cover part of the cost.” He paid 60 percent of the bill; his company picked up the rest. “Health City was like going to a five-star resort. They even picked me up at home and drove me to the airport in Toronto.” He felt better as soon as he woke up and was doing three- and four-kilometre walks within two days of his surgery.

He does have one regret about going abroad for treatment: “I should have gone sooner.”

This article originally appeared in Issue 4 of YouAreUNLTD magazine

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Michele Sponagle
Michele Sponagle
Michele Sponagle is a prolific lifestyle journalist based in Paris, Ontario, who has contributed to many leading media outlets, from the Washington Post to Canadian Living.