Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Swallowing Medical Tourism Claims

It intrigues me how easily respected publications swallow and reproduce false and misleading claims by self-promoters. I belatedly came acrosss this story in the March 24th issue of BusinessWeek titled "Outsourcing The Patients."

It's about medical tourism taking off, and US health insurers like the Blue Cross & Blue Shield of South Caroline letting US patients get treatment in good foreign hospitals. The comparative cost data presented in the accompanying table caught my eye as it looked so wrong. The cost of a standard heart bypass procedure in the US, Singapore, Thailand and India is shown as $130,000, $18,000, $11,000 and $10,000 respectively. Though figures vary by source my best "apples-to-apples" estimates for these countries would be $70,000, $30,000, $18,000 and $10,000 respectively.

The $130,000 for US based procedures appears to be based on the inflated "list" prices that are billed by U.S. hospitals to the hapless uninsured walk-ins. But these cases are less than 8% of the total, and even among these the providers on average realize only a fraction of the charges. Instead, the providers are typically paid "negotiated" rates that are about half the list prices. The rates listed for Asian countries should be for comparable JCI accredited "five star" hospitals. Singapore's own hospital administrators say that their prices are about half of US prices and several other sources including medical tour operators confirm this. The same sources can confirm Thailand hospital prices that are about half to two-thirds of Singapore prices (or one and a half to two times the Indian prices.)

Why did BusinessWeek so understate Singapore and Thai prices? Their listed source is the Thai Public Health Ministry. This ministry doesn't appear to have the data on their website, and gave numbers to make Thai hospitals look good compared to their Indian counterparts. BusinessWeek could have easily caught the errors by using other sources to check this information.

However, this misinformation pales in comparison to the claims by Thailand's Bumrungrad Hospital mentioned in my earlier post of August 17, 2007. Another BusinessWeek article of March 17, '08 quotes the American CEO of Thailand's Bumrungrad Hospital as saying that 65,000 Americans were treated there in 2007. A back of the envelope calculation exposes the absurdity of this claim. Bumrungrad's total revenue in 2007 according to their financial disclosures was 9.4 billion Baht, or $299M (not the $555M reported in the article.) Now assuming an average payment of $8,000 per American patient, the revenue from 65,000 Americans alone would be $520M, not counting all the other million or so patients. I'll be surprised if more than 2,000 US patients visited Bumrungrad in 2007, so they're exaggerating by a factor of about 30 or 3000%.

Given this, I worry about how much faith we can place in the integrity of such medical institutions, or their quality of treatment. The chicanery of one or two prominent hospitals can give a bad name to medical tourism as a whole. But here I'm focusing more on the accuracy of reporting and maintaining journalistic standards. BusinessWeek is not alone in this. The New York Times and The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette were taken in by similarly outrageous claims by Bumrungrad in 2006. I noticed another contradictory statement in the BusinessWeek March 17th article - that said "The big problem, though, is that Bumrungrad is now too popular... [with a low] 70% occupancy rate.." Huh?

I'm aware of the tremendous pressures on the harried and underpaid staff of these publications to rush stories to the press. But they owe their trusting readers a little fact-checking and verification, while saving themselves from serious embarrassment in the bargain.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Of Thermometers And Ailing Globalization

I don't want to overblow it. But shopping for the most basic item of home health can hold lessons about broader management practices. I've been unable to buy a reliable digital thermometer in the US. I finally obtained it from India. Here's how it happened.

Last month Anita and I came down with the flu. Our old glass and mercury thermometer took too long for an accurate read of temperatures. A couple of good digital thermometers we had bought more recently (one in the US in 2000 and another in India in 2004) had been passed on to our children.

So I went to a CVS pharmacy to buy another digital thermometer. There were several types on display - store brands as well as the better known Vicks brand. They varied essentially in the time they took to record temperatures, ranging from 5 seconds to a minute. They all claimed on their packaging to be accurate within 0.2 degrees F in accordance with federal standards.

The problem is, they weren't. The CVS brand I first bought for $6 was off by over 2.5 degrees when compared with our reliable mercury thermometer. Moreover, readings varied widely on successive tries. Then I exchanged it for the Vicks brand for $14. Same story. I then visited Rite Aid pharmacy and bought another which was also hopelessly inaccurate. Finally I talked to the pharmacists at both Rite Aid and CVS about this. The Rite Aid pharmacist said he had received many complaints about all the types and brands of thermometers that they carried, and couldn't recommend any one of them. All were made in China. It was the same thing (and the same Vicks brand) at Walgreens. The reliable "Made in USA" digital thermometers I had bought seven years ago were as extinct as the mammoth.

The CVS pharmacist said the only ones likely to work were the old glass types filled with liquid (a mercury substitute, since mercury thermometers are now banned here for safety reasons.) I finally bought a glass and liquid type which thankfully works fine though it requires 3 minutes to record temperatures. The brand name is Geratherm and it was the only one not made in China, but in Germany instead.

As we still preferred a faster-reading digital thermometer, Anita called her brother Prakash who happened to be visiting India at that time. He easily picked up a good digital thermometer made in Taiwan from a local Indian drugstore and brought it back to USA for us.

At present, corruption and the "anything goes" culture in China makes it easier to get away with poor quality manufacturing and adulteration of goods. Does this mean goods coming out of China are necessarily inferior? Not at all. There are articles about Japanese companies that flew their quality experts and manufacturing teams into China and thus ensured top quality. The best laptop in the world at present is the Chinese made Lenovo ThinkPad X300, according to BusinessWeek (March 10, '08).

The problem lies in the attitude and priorities of the US managers who procure from China. Instead of stressing high quality at an acceptable price they seek the lowest price for acceptable quality. And "acceptable quality" often means whatever does not get the procurer into trouble in the time he holds that position before moving on. In our digital thermometer case the outsourcing manager(s) at Vicks and the buyers for the drug store chains probably got kudos and promotions for having cut costs and boosting profits in the short term. By the time it became known that these thermometers were junk these people were probably in other positions and never held accountable.

This story repeats with countless products sold in the US by a whole range of companies. The practice flows from top managements that do not track the consequences of their executives' past decisions and reward short term performance. US CEOs are themselves driven by quarterly targets and myopic goals. This can apply to small, private companies that deliver services as well.

One such example of short term opportunism trumping long term interests is in medical tourism, an area of healthcare services of special interest to me. There are several small companies offering their advice and services to outgoing US patients. They can be strongly tempted to steer patients to hospitals and clinics based on the fees they realize, while compromising the quality of treatment. The danger extends beyond the obvious ones to their patients' wellbeing and to their reputations or legal exposure. Just a couple of well publicised mishaps can shake the confidence of medical tourists and severely damage the nascent medical tourism industry as a whole. That's a whole lot worse than a pile of junk thermometers being returned to drugstores.