‘Just what the doctor ordered’

Medical tourism to Israel on the rise.

MRI Scanner at Shaare Zedek Medical Center 521 (photo credit: www.szmc.org.il)
MRI Scanner at Shaare Zedek Medical Center 521
(photo credit: www.szmc.org.il)
The story was four months old before it broke in July, but this was news well worth reporting.
Last spring, the brother-in-law of the Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, was rushed to an Israeli hospital for an urgent heart procedure that probably saved his life. The man and his wife, Haniyeh’s sister Suhila, stayed at The Rabin Medical Center-Beilinson Campus in Petah Tikva for a week before his cardiac condition stabilized and the couple quietly returned to Gaza.
Haniyeh had little to say when the report finally surfaced, but days later the leader of the Islamist terror militia was quick to accuse Israel of plotting the deadly assault by Muslim jihadists on an Egyptian army base near Rafah which left 16 Egyptian soldiers dead.
“The attack’s method confirms some sort of Israeli involvement aiming to achieve political and security goals, cause tension on the border with Egypt and destroy joint efforts to end the Gaza blockade,” Haniyeh charged.
Palestinian efforts to discredit and destroy Israel persist, yet Israeli doctors continue to open their doors to Palestinian Arabs in need of medical assistance.
In fact, Israel’s civil administration released a report in March stating that Palestinians made 115,000 visits for examination and treatment in Israeli hospitals in 2011, a 13 percent increase in comparison to the previous year. Five of these patients received emergency organ transplants that saved their lives, while Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem saved two Palestinian babies by emergency operations on the mothers during childbirth.
In addition, over 100 Palestinian doctors interned at Israeli hospitals last year, while Israel hosted 2,000 Palestinian doctors at various conferences and educational programs both in Israel and abroad.
Palestinian Authority and Hamas officials do not want this story told. They prefer tales of ambulances delayed at checkpoints and mass denials of entry.
But a World Health Organization report in February found that over 90% of Palestinian requests for medical treatment at Israeli hospitals were approved and carried out successfully.
And Palestinian Arabs are not the only ones seeking better medical care in Israel these days. In fact, Israel’s advanced medical establishment has made “medical tourism” a growth industry for the nation, even birthing a new visa category – the “medical tourist.”
There are two types of medical tourists to Israel today, both drawn by its world class medical facilities. The first type are poor patients from Arab and other lands who need advanced treatment that is either not available or unaffordable in their home country. The second type are patients who can afford advanced care offered in their home countries but elect to seek treatment in Israel due to its reputation for having some the finest doctors in the world.
Indeed, the World Health Organization has ranked Israel near the top of its listing of OECD countries for accomplishment and competence in the medical field. So Israel’s health care industry is one of the best in the world and, what is more, the nation is also willing to share its expertise with the world.
Furthermore, the medical professionals in Israel are adamant about offering their services to those in need without discrimination, as evidenced by the care given to Haniyeh’s close relative.
Crossing borders
Traveling far afield to seek medical care dates to antiquity, even here in Israel. It was common in ancient times for those with skin disorders to seek treatments abroad at health spas and other specialty facilities often located in natural settings conducive to healing, such as sites with warm springs and filtered sunlight. The warm mineral springs below Tiberias were just such a destination in the time of Jesus.
In modern times, many individuals with rare genetic disorders began crossing international borders to obtain medical services in other countries where treatment of their conditions was better understood.
Today, services typically sought by medical travelers now include elective procedures as well as complex specialized surgeries.
In the process, Israel has emerged as a popular destination for medical tourists.
Many of these foreign patients come to Israel because certain surgical procedures here cost considerably less than in their home countries. The waiting period for surgery in Israel is also shorter that in many countries. But for many foreign patients coming to Israel, the first big draw is the rare medical benefits to be found along the shores of the Dead Sea.
Dead Sea brings life
For several decades now, tourists from around the world have been coming to seek relief for a variety of skin conditions at treatment centers and spas along the Dead Sea, a world-famous therapeutic resort area located well below sea-level.
The Dead Sea area has become a major center for health research and treatment, due to the region’s unique climate and low elevation. The briny mineral mix in the Dead Sea waters, plus the very low content of pollen and other allergens in the atmosphere, have led to its popularity as the place for several types of skin and allergy therapies. The area also enjoys nearly year-round sunlight, while the extra 1,800 feet of atmosphere to reach the sea’s surface helps filter out many of the sun’s harmful UV rays.
So, the mineral-rich mud baths and the constant filtered sunlight combine to offer relief for a variety of skin disorders, such as psoriasis, and the list of treatments and medical assistance in this region is endless. Mud from the Dead Sea is believed to have therapeutic benefits for numerous skin ailments. The sun’s radiation, the humidity, the barometric pressure, special atmospheric conditions and the water itself all have specific health benefits.
As a result, the Dead Sea oasis of Ein Bokek alone now boasts numerous clinics, spas and hot springs, plus 12 luxury hotels, shopping malls, restaurants and bars, all built to accommodate the steady influx of medical tourists.
Book your hospital bed
Besides the Dead Sea spas, the other big draw for those foreigners electing to have medical treatments in Israel is its ultra-modern hospitals, which are known for their high standards and innovative yet affordable procedures.
With the health care industry in crisis in many Western countries, Israel is becoming an even bigger magnet for those who can pay their way to better health.
For instance, a patient with no health insurance who needs bypass surgery in the United States would spend approximately $120,000, while the same procedure performed in Israel would cost approximately $30,000. In-vitro fertilization (IVF) is known for its high success rates and considerably lower costs. IVF costs $3,000-$3,500 per cycle in Israel, compared to $16,000-$20,000 in the US.
Two Israeli hospitals that have been especially successful at alluring medical tourists are the Hadassah University Medical Center, which has two campuses on opposite ends of Jerusalem, and the Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan, the largest hospital in the Middle East. Both are advanced tertiary care hospitals that serve thousands of medical tourists annually.
To help accommodate the increase in foreign patients often accompanied by relatives, Hadassah has built a large onsite hotel for out-patients in its Ein Kerem campus, reducing the costs of extended stays for tourists and the demand on hospital beds for Hadassah.
The growth of the medical tourism industry in Israel has created a need for medical tourism brokers, who are something between travel agents and medical coordinators. They facilitate the process of receiving medical care in a foreign country by assisting in everything from the purchase of plane tickets to the referral to specialists and the selection of medical procedures. They also organize fun day trips and tours all over Israel.
Usually, these brokers earn their pay by receiving a brokerage fee from the doctors and do not cost anything to the patient. If one does not have family or close friends in Israel, this is the easiest way to arrange for a medical tourist visa to Israel.
A person seeking medical treatment abroad needs to follow a typical process of obtaining medical reports, local doctor’s opinion, medical history and diagnosis, to receive recommendation letters for a medical visa. Certified medical doctors or consultants then advise on the medical treatment. In the destination country the patient is assigned a case executive to take care of the patient’s accommodation, treatment and any other form of care.
Many foreign patients choose Israel for procedures such as bone marrow transplants (especially for residents of Cyprus, where the procedure is unavailable), heart surgery and catheterization, oncological and neurological treatments, road accident rehabilitation and more.
Compassion in action And then there are those who choose Israeli hospitals because Israeli doctors choose to open their hearts to them. A growing number of foreign patients in Israel hospitals are from poor families in neighboring Arab countries or other states in the region who arrive in desperate need of medical care. The needed treatments are either unavailable in their home countries or the doors of the hospital are closed to those who cannot pay.
This benevolent brand of Israeli medical tourism for the downtrodden came to the fore over the last decade through Save a Child’s Heart, an association of Israeli heart surgeons who first offered their services for free to Palestinian children born with heart defects and then to Jordanian and Iraqi children, and expanded to a large number of third world countries. The Christian group Shevet Achim has been transporting these young Arab patients into Israel from throughout the region, while the doctors’ association performs the complex surgeries at no charge.
A few years ago, a young Iraqi girl named “Santa” made headlines when she visited Bethlehem at Christmas while in Israel for such emergency heart surgery.
A more recent case of note involves Umar Mulinde, a Christian pastor from Uganda who was assaulted with acid by Muslim radicals outside his church in Kampala last Christmas Eve.
A convert from Islam, Mulinde was targeted for a variety of reasons. First, he preaches to other Muslims with results, as one-third of his congregation is made up of ex-Muslim converts to Christianity.
He also had recently petitioned his government to reject a bill that would have adopted Shari’a law nationwide.
Finally, Mulinde has befriended Israel. In recent years, Mulinde has brought six tour groups to Israel, taught courses on Zionism to his congregation and held large pro-Israel rallies in local stadiums.
This angered Islamist activists, who threw a powerful toxic acid in his face last December, leaving him in agonizing pain and in desperate need of medical help.
Doctors in the best hospital in Kampala admitted he urgently needed better care elsewhere. Since the nearest Israeli embassy was in Nairobi, Kenya and it was a Shabbat, Mulinde’s wife sought assistance from the Indian embassy in Kampala. He was quickly flown to New Delhi, but even they had no answer for the painful burns on the entire right side of his face. At this point, his condition was so bad he could not walk or talk, and his right eye was blinded.
Then an email to an American Jewish woman opened the door to Israel.
Mulinde first met her when he tried to get positive teaching materials on Israel from an online public diplomacy site.
She made some calls to Israel, and the next day he was flown to Ben-Gurion Airport and admitted into Sheba Medical Center, known as one of the foremost burn treatment facilities in the world.
Mulinde was received as though he were an Israeli victim of terror. Neither his Christian faith nor his Muslim background was an obstacle. The doctors cleaned his wounds, administered pain medication, and then began a lengthy process of medical procedures to repair his face.
After a major skin graft operation and the removal of his damaged eye, Mulinde wore a specially designed mask that promoted healing while also reshaping his facial contours back to normal. The mask is now off and doctors are still recreating his eye lid and repairing his right nostril. But Mulinde is extremely grateful that he has been receiving the best care in the world.
“When I came to Sheba I was in such pain, but they showed so much care that it helped me instantly,” Mulinde told The Christian Edition.
“They are doing such a great work, but they don’t talk about it. I’ve met many sick and hurting people from other countries at Sheba, and they’re all very thankful. Africans, Arabs, Asians, they are all here.”
Mulinde noted that his own doctor at Sheba has been on emergency aid missions recently to Mombasa, Kenya and Lima, Peru, among other disaster areas.
“These Israeli doctors make big sacrifices to care for the hurt and wounded,” he assured.
Mulinde’s care at Sheba Medical Center is handled through its medical tourism department, which has a growing number of staff as well as patients. His case agent, Isaac Farchi, remembers when the young pastor from Uganda first arrived.
“At the beginning, Umar came with untreated wounds. So it was very painful for him and stressful for everyone involved,” Farchi said. “Our main concern was his damaged right eye. We tried a lot of tests and procedures, but we eventually removed it to avoid the infection spreading to his good eye.”
Farchi said his department admits 50 to 75 foreign patients a week on average.
Each one is assigned a coordinator to help them interact with the hospital staff, and they are seeing a high rate of success. He added that there is often a language barrier in communicating with Israeli doctors in Hebrew, so everyone is also assigned a translator as needed.
“We feel the hospital benefits in helping people like Umar,” Farchi noted.
“This is all done in the name of the State of Israel. We just had two girls from the earthquake in Haiti who were fitted with prosthetic legs. There’s no end to these type of patients.”
“I’m very happy with the work we do at Sheba, but there are many other hospitals like us in Israel,” he continued. “It’s in the Jewish heart to help save lives.”