New medical procedures available in Costa Rica

April 18, 2012

Uriel Vargas has a bunch of gadgets, doohickeys and thingamabobs he wants to show you.

These items have complicated medical names, too. But what’s more important is what these devices do. Vargas works for a company called Meditek, a medical treatment facilitator in Costa Rica that promotes the latest medical technology. Vargas peddles in areas like pain management, drug administration and Parkinson’s disease treatment, and the pitch is that these products are cheaper here than in the other countries, where these latest technologies are available.

“A lot of the things that you can find in [the U.S. and Europe], we have it here,” Vargas said.

As medical tourism flourishes in Costa Rica, the industry is looking to expand into new niches. Dental tourism dominates the market, comprising 40 percent of foreigner medical visits. Plastic surgery also remains one of the top elections. But at the country’s annual Medical Travel Summit from April 23-25, organized by the Council for International Promotion of Costa Rica Medicine (PROMED), will emphasize areas of growth like bariatric surgery and orthopedics. Those treatments might not be covered by insurance in the U.S., and cost significantly less to undergo abroad.

“These are issues in which we have many advantages and it’s a place where Costa Rica can diversify itself,” said Massimo Manzi, executive director of medical tourism promoters PROMED.

Manzi said he believes Costa Rica could have a medical tourism future in addiction rehab and preventative procedures.

In addition, Costa Rican companies like Meditek are beginning to promote contemporary treatments that normally only exist in places like the United States, Canada or Europe. 

Costa Rican doctors are becoming experts in the latest medical technology, training in the U.S. and Canada, and performing operations at private hospitals in the Central Valley for crippling ailments such as multiple sclerosis, diabetes and neurological diseases like epilepsy and Parkinson’s disease. 

Doctors in these fields are few to begin with, Meditek said, and only one doctor offers the Parkinson’s treatment — a surgical device designed to control tremors. Only five doctors perform the pain management operations intended to reduce low body and back pain. 

Currently, these treatments bring in few medical tourists, and the majority of patients are expats who are veterans or retired and living in Costa Rica. Still, all treatments are FDA-approved, Vargas said. He added Meditek works with doctors back in the foreigner’s home country in regards to follow-ups.  

In addition, the procedures do not guarantee 100 percent success. For example, with pain management, statistics show approximately 60-80 percent of patients report an improvement after the implant is placed in the body. However, the lower price in Costa Rica makes the procedures more cost-efficient and worth the trial.

The Parkinson’s treatment costs $200,000 in the U.S., and between $60,000-80,000 in Costa Rica. The surgical insertion of an insulin pump for diabetes runs between $4,000-$8,000. Devices designed for pain management have a price tag of between $30,000-$40,000. 

Vargas said most procedures cost less than half here in Costa Rican than they do in the U.S., and estimates include lodging, excursions and bringing family members. 

Most of the procedures have a short recovery time of one or two days. Like most medical tourism operations, those who come to Costa Rica to receive one of the country’s most high-tech treatments also are expected to take advantage of the location and enjoy the beach and jungle while they recuperate.

“The people that come here [for most of these treatments] can do activities right after,” Vargas said. “Get the operation done and you go enjoy some tourism.”

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