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Company targets Americans for health tourism packages

An Auckland company, Medtral Ltd, is setting New Zealand up as a destination for "medical tourists" from affluent countries who want "cheap" operations and other medical procedures.

A key shareholder in the company, gynaecologist Edward Watson -- who has been a consultant for pharmaceutical firms including Pfizer and Pharmacia -- told the Washington Post the burgeoning business in conducting drug trials in New Zealand showed the potential for relatively cheap non-urgent surgery.

The newspaper reported a knee replacement, with additional expenses for aftercare, would be about $NZ42,700 in the United States, compared with about $NZ24,000 at a top-tier hospital in Mexico and about $NZ30,000 in Auckland.

Coronary bypass surgery would be $NZ82,000 in the United States, $NZ29,400 in Mexico's top tier and $NZ45,400 in New Zealand.

The New Zealand costs included hotel, airfares for two, and case coordination by a registered nurse.

Dr Watson is targeting America's estimated 75 million uninsured and under-insured Americans, as well as health insurers eager to keep their costs down.

"They are interested in working with us," he told the newspaper. Medtral recently announced a deal with American insurer Pinnacle Health to offer all-inclusive travel and medical treatment packages.

So far, 29 Americans and one Canadian have registered with Medtral, he said.

The newspaper reported New Zealand has fine private hospitals that, unlike their public counterparts, are not full to overflowing, English-speaking hospital staff and a culture that feels familiar to many Americans.

Dr Watson said the market was targeted more on procedure than on people wanting to come to New Zealand for a holiday, but Air New Zealand was arranging travel packages for patients.

"New Zealand is perceived as a safe option," Dr Watson said. It was cheaper than having the same operations in Singapore, Belgium or Germany.

"We're not as cheap as India," he said. "We're never going to be as cheap as India."

Auckland's Ascot and Mercy hospitals are shareholders in the business.

The newspaper noted that prompt access for non-urgent operations was something many New Zealanders themselves had trouble accessing.

"Few New Zealanders have private health insurance," it said. "They rely on a sometimes swamped public health system to deal with their complaints, and there are waiting lists for many procedures, including hip replacements and radiotherapy".

Dr Watson said other private hospitals are interested in joining his scheme, and one indirect benefit may be a better chance of attracting back some of the New Zealand surgeons working overseas.

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