Idaho A Medical Destination For Canadian Boomers

Nov 28, 2014

A hospital in North Idaho is marketing itself to Canadian tourists -- medical tourists, that is.

Most of the patients who come into Northwest Specialty Hospital in Post Falls, Idaho, are from the local area -- plus a few from Washington and Montana.

But hospital CEO Rick Rasmussen is thinking big -- Canada big. A little Canadian flag was recently added in the upper right of the hospital’s website.

Medical tourism boom

The link goes to a list of procedures with some of the longest wait times north of the border. Total knee, total hip, total shoulder, ACL repair -- all with the prices listed.

But it feels more like the listing for a vacation package than a medical procedure. And included in each deal: a stay at the nearby luxury Coeur d’Alene Resort.

“So the resort picks them up at the airport, them and their spouse, takes them to the hotel, puts them in a nice room overlooking the lake,” Rasmussen said.

And while the spouse enjoys some spa time, the patient gets a new knee.

“And they’re back out playing curling this winter rather than waiting, you know, two years,” Rasmussen said.

Northwest Specialty Hospital isn’t the only hospital near the border trying to get in on the multi-billion dollar international medical tourism business. A group in Washington is trying to make Seattle a destination.

Bypassing the waiting line

U.S. hospitals may not have the prices that places like Costa Rica, Thailand and Mexico can offer. But what they do have, at least in the eyes of Canadians, is speediness.

Valorie Crooks, a health geographer at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, said Canadians are often heading across the border to avoid the wait lists of their national healthcare system. The demand for knee and hip procedures is especially high with Canada’s aging baby boom population.

But Crooks said these aren’t vacation get-aways. Even when Canadians are just crossing the 49th parallel, there are still risks.

“The practice of Canadians going to the United States for these sort of out-of-pocket payment health care arrangements raise some of the similar types of questions as Canadians going to any other country in the world, including sort of lesser developed nations,” Crooks said.

She said since patients are doing this outside their normal health care system, they have to pay -- and do all their own research. And Crooks said even when the procedure goes as planned, the patient’s recovery becomes the responsibility of the Canadian health care system.

“Physicians are left to sort of figure out if and how they’re going to follow up on orders from a jurisdiction that is not only not local but is coming from an entirely different country,” she said.

Things like physical therapy, medications and lab tests don’t always translate well across the border.

Still, many Canadian patients are up for it.

'I’d do it again in a heartbeat'

Trent Jeffries of Calgary went to Northwest Specialty Hospital a year ago -- even before they officially started the medical tourism program.

Jeffries had had knee problems for over a decade, but wouldn’t receive approval from his doctor in Canada for knee replacement until he was 55. So with a few years to go and the pain medications no longer working, Jeffries and his wife consulted with a orthopedic surgeon in north Idaho. And they made the seven-hour drive to Post Falls.

“Sat down -- I wasn’t in that chair 10 minutes and they called me in for pre-op there,” Jeffries said.

He added he’d never given a hospital a $14,000 check before. But he said it was worth it.

“You know what, to fix the problem, I’d do it again in a heartbeat,” Jeffries said. “Wouldn’t bother me a bit. I’ve said since I’ve come back, if I have any problems from here on, I won’t fool around here, I’ll get in my vehicle and drive south.”

And if there’s a stay at a resort thrown in -- so much the better.