When Bridget Snell found out she had multiple sclerosis, she knew she would put up a fight. The 45 year-old mother of two, who lives in Duxbury, Mass., researched options to slow the progress of the disease. The methods she had been trying were invasive, often with side effects of their own.
An estimated 2.2 million Americans will travel abroad for medical care in 2020.
Then she stumbled upon autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (AHSCT), an experimental and controversial procedure that uses the patient's own stem cells to try to halt the progress of the disease. The FDA has not approved this procedure and last year issued a warning about unapproved stem cell therapies.
Despite the lack of established science, Snell weighed her options and decided she would undergo the procedure at Clinica Ruiz, a private clinic in Puebla, Mexico, which boasts of the largest volume of cases in the world using the procedure to treat MS. In April 2018, she went to Mexico for treatment, returned home in a month, and continues to do well.
But a positive outcome is far from assured, says Sheldon Krimsky, adjunct professor in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at the Tufts School of Medicine.
"Often you can't get a good sense of what the quality of treatment is in another country," Krimsky says, adding that many companies promise procedures whose results have not been clinically validated. "Unfortunately, people are very easily persuaded by hope."
Traveling for Medical Care
Snell is one of many Americans who have traveled abroad to access medical care. Patients Beyond Borders, a medical tourism consultancy, estimates that 2.2 million Americans will do so in 2020. A 2018 BCC report projected a five-year compounded annual industry growth rate of 13.2 percent. Adding to the demand is the aging population, which is expected to reach 95 million people by 2060 – nearly double the number in 2018.
While Snell traveled to Mexico to try a procedure that was not yet available in the United States, other patients do so for a variety of reasons, primarily cost and speed of access. For example, despite having "pretty good insurance coverage," Washington resident Soniya Gadgil needed dental procedures that would have cost thousands of dollars out-of-pocket. An India native, she decided to travel to Pune, India to visit her parents -- and while there, she got the two root canals and implant that she needed. Gadgil saved 60 percent on the final bill.
Leaving the country for medical care is not restricted to dental work or FDA-banned procedures either. Patients visit countries around the world — South America, Central America, and the Caribbean top the list — for a number of other problems, such as knee and hip replacements and bariatric operations. The most common procedures sought abroad are for dentistry, cosmetic surgery, and cardiac conditions.
Traveling abroad to access less expensive procedures is a damning indictment of healthcare delivery in the United States, says Dr. Leigh Turner, associate professor at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota. "We have people who are being forced out of the system because of high costs. Collectively it suggests a real structural problem in terms of the organization of healthcare in the United States," Turner says.
The Growth of the Online Marketplace
Nevertheless, medical tourism is booming and a number of online businesses now meet patients' demand for discovery and facilitation of medical care abroad, like PlanMyMedicalTrip.com, Doctoorum.com, and Wellness Travels.
Anurav Rane, CEO and Founder of PlanMyMedicalTrip.com, says the company presents each potential client with options, a la Expedia. A knee replacement in India costs $2,500, a significantly cheaper option even with a $1,110 round-trip airfare from the United States, Rane says. The average cost for an inpatient total knee replacement in the United States in 2019 was a little more $30,000.
Once the client chooses a specific procedure at a specific hospital, the company facilitates the necessary groundwork including the medical visa, tickets, hotel stay, booking the procedure and pre and post-op stay, and consults with the surgeons or doctors even before arrival. "The hassle of planning is on us," Rane says. Once patients are settled in the accommodations, they undergo the procedure.
Playing in the Legal Shadows
The online marketplace companies and the medical team execute an orchestrated dance – but what happens if the patient is harmed during or after the procedure?
Turner says that medical malpractice, if it occurs, can be difficult to pursue abroad. "There are countries where the courts are notoriously slow and it's very difficult to get any kind of meaningful action and settlements," he says, even if the claims have a legitimate basis.
The industry's biggest challenge is trust.
Snell signed a waiver absolving her surgeons in Mexico of any legal claims. But, she points out, that's standard process even for procedures in the United States. "I signed just as many waivers as I would going into any surgery [in the US]."
While that might well be true, Turner argues, Americans don't waive legal rights when they sign consent forms. "There are some protections for patients here in the United States."
Beyond U.S. Medical Tourism
As expected, it's not just Americans who travel abroad for medical care. Lithuania-based Wellness Travels sees a significant percentage of its clients from the EU. PlanMyMedicaltrip.com has 15,000 surgeons and doctors from 12 countries in its database. Egypt-based Doctoorum works with professionals in its own country and attracts clients from the Middle East. It is looking to expand to include doctors from Jordan and India, among other countries.
The term "tourism" is misleading here because it muddies the picture about what post-op should really look like, says Gediminas Kondrackis of Wellness Travels. "Unfortunately a lot of medical travel facilitators mislead their clients by advertising beach holiday packages and the like. Post-op is really about quiet recovery inside for a few days; being out in the sun is not advisable."
The industry's biggest challenge is trust. "The dentist I went to is actually a friend of mine who has a successful practice for several years," says Gadgil, the Washington resident who had dental work done in India. "I'd hesitate to go to someone I don't know or to a place I have no experience with." Her apprehensions are not unusual. After all, anxiety is an expected reaction to any surgery. Word-of-mouth, cost savings, and thorough research may alleviate some of these trust issues.
"I had natural apprehensions and would have had them had I gone up the road to Brigham and Women's (in Boston) just as I did over the border," Snell says, "but I had done my homework extensively. That took a lot of the fear out of it."
Medical tourism will only increase, predicts Kondrackis. "There is still a lot of room to grow. Higher numbers of medical travelers could help reduce the strain on local healthcare systems by reducing wait times and controlling costs."
While patients who have benefited from medical tourism swear by it, the best cure would be to start at home by establishing healthcare equity, Krimsky says.
On the flip side, says Turner, it is debatable whether medical tourism actually benefits host countries, where local residents might get priced out of procedures at these exclusive clinics. Even if laws in host countries such as India might mandate "charity care" for poorer local patients, that does not always happen, Turner says. The trickle-down theory that these more expensive clinics will broaden access to care is often a pipe dream, he adds.
While patients who have benefited from medical tourism swear by it, the best cure would be to start at home by establishing healthcare equity, Krimsky says. "Now if we had universal healthcare in the United States," he adds, "that would be an entirely different story."
Or maybe not. Rane, of PlanMyMedicalTrip.com, has observed an influx of patients to India from Canada, a country with universal healthcare.
The reason they say they travel for care? Long wait times for procedures.
In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."