Home The Washington Diplomat August 2008 Going Under Down Under

Going Under Down Under


New Zealand’s Latest Tourist Attraction: Cheap Surgery

Could you fly halfway around the world to have your gall bladder removed? An enterprising doctor in Auckland is betting the answer is yes — especially if you get a free vacation out of it and your insurance company picks up most of the tab.

Dr. Edward Watson is chairman and founder of Medtral New Zealand, a startup medical services provider that offers breast enlargements, total hip-joint replacements and other common fertility, urological, cardiac and plastic reconstructive surgeries — all at a 60 percent to 70 percent savings over the cost of similar procedures in the United States, even after throwing in transpacific airfare, hotels and meals.

“What we offer is world-class treatment in New Zealand for non-acute surgery that is as good as, if not better, than what’s available in the U.S., at a price we think is pretty competitive,” Watson told The Washington Diplomat in a phone interview from Auckland.

Of course, the concept of medical tourism — traveling abroad for medical care — isn’t new. As health costs in the U.S. continue to skyrocket and an estimated 75 million Americans find themselves uninsured or under-insured, hundreds of thousands are seeking medical care overseas. In response, many countries have jumped on the medical tourism bandwagon. India, Singapore, Thailand, Brazil, Cuba, Germany, Belgium and the Dominican Republic, among others, all have programs in place to lure prospective patients with procedures done at state-of-the-art facilities for a fraction of the cost.

But New Zealand — a 12-hour flight from Los Angeles — says it can do the job better, safer and for a lot less money.

“New Zealand is not only one of the most affordable destinations for medical care, but it is also clean, green, American- and Canadian-friendly with a safe, peaceful environment,” said Watson, an obstetrician-gynecologist specializing in family medicine. “It also offers extraordinary tourism opportunities, including stunning scenery, winery tours, golf and fly fishing. Our team of medically focused professionals is ready to assist patients with personalized attention that helps to guide their medical travel experience.”

Watson, quoting a recent survey, said 40 percent of Americans would travel overseas if the quality of medical care was comparable to what they’d receive at home, and if the price was at least 50 percent lower.

“New Zealand won’t be a foreign experience for medical travelers,” he said. “We are an English-speaking country with a culture that is very similar to the United States and Canada. Our facilities are accredited by the recognized and respected International Society for Quality in Health Care, but the price tag is a fraction of the cost in North America.”

For example, a mitral heart valve replacement that costs 0,000 if done in the United States is under ,000 in New Zealand. Watson says he can perform a hip replacement for ,000, compared to the U.S. price of ,000.

Other costs for common surgeries include a radical hysterectomy for ,000 (U.S. price: ,000); robotic prostate for ,000 to ,000 (U.S. price: more than 0,000); and coronary artery bypass graft surgery for ,000 (U.S. price: 5,000).

“There’s no point in us quoting prices without everything included,” Watson said. “Our price is all-inclusive, meaning round-trip airfare on Air New Zealand, accommodations and the procedure itself. Other medical travel organizations operating in a first-world environment would be hard pressed to match this package.”

According to the New York-based Commonwealth Fund, New Zealand has one of the world’s best health systems. The country’s private hospitals rival the finest anywhere else, with all facilities staffed by experienced doctors and nurses who — in many cases — have been trained in the United States or Great Britain.

About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.