Cape Cod is Attracting a New Kind of Tourist

BOSTON – When you live in Massachusetts, it is easy to forget how lucky we are to live close to some of the best doctors and hospitals in the world. There is a long history of people from other countries coming to our region for medical attention.

Recently, 53-year-old Shanzhen Zhang traveled from Beijing specifically to see Cape Cod Hospital neurosurgeon,Paul Houle MD. And if Zhang’s experience is any predictor, this may mark the beginning of other Chinese patients coming here for the same reason: top quality care with a personal touch.

Zhang was referred to Dr. Houle from a local friend in China, Lisa Diprete, who also happened to be a patient of Dr. Houle’s. Zhang had been experiencing a slow loss of function in his hands and degradation of his dexterity and balance. When he heard about the skill level and quality of care Diprete received, he never thought twice about travelling half-way around the world for spinal surgery.

“The patient learned about Dr. Houle and Cape Cod Hospital through me. I am a patient of Dr. Houle and had great success. The reason we chose Cape Cod Hospital is because of our faith in Dr. Houle,” said Diprete.

With Diprete interpreting, Dr. Houle was able to provide counsel remotely using Facetime. Radiological images confirmed what Chinese doctors had already told Zhang. He had advanced degenerative disease of the spine, with spinal cord compression.

“The solution to his problem was ananterior cervical discectomy with fusion, which is a pretty standard surgical procedure. Chinese surgeons are just as good as surgeons here, and many of the hospitals are fine as well. But, it is hard to get personal attention. There are just too many people, “said Dr. Houle.

The procedure is one that Dr. Houle has performed many times. It’s done in the hospital under anesthesia, with an inpatient stay for recovery.

Zhang didn’t realize how impaired he was until after the surgery.

”The surgery result was a 100 percent success. It resolved all of my problems and complications. I knew it the day after. I felt much better,” he said.

As is customary in China, Zhang remained in the hospital for several days post-operatively. And being a self-pay patient, he was able to decide when his surgery would take place and how long he would remain inpatient for recovery.

“Originally, he wanted to stay in the hospital a week for recovery, but he left after four days because he was doing so well,” said Dr. Houle.

Communication was one of Dr. Houle’s concerns. Early on, he looked into getting pre-printed patient material written in Mandarin.

“One of our medical supply vendors does a lot of business in China and I reached out to them to get patient brochures written in Chinese,” said Dr. Houle. “ There are no brochures. They don’t have them. The reason is patients and doctors don’t converse in China. If the patient has a problem, they fix it.”

Visiting Zhang bedside, Dr. Houle connected with Lisa Diprete through Facetime for translation.

“The language barrier proved to be a non-issue,” said Dr. Houle. “ I would sit in his room and we would call her up over the Internet, and that is how we would communicate. It was an interesting use of technology- the interpreter wasn’t always in the room, but we could reach her at any time.”

From these conversations, Dr. Houle became acutely aware of the deficits of a system of medical care where there are too few clinicians caring for too many people. And during these sessions, Dr. Houle began getting requests for medical consultations from the patient’s relatives and friends, who were following his Facebook posts.

“We were getting private messages from people saying, ‘should I come to Cape Cod to have this surgery,’ “ said Dr. Houle. “It became a vine of interest.”

And just like he does for all of his patients, Dr. Houle has begun preparations for what might come.

“I have actually set up a meeting with a person who does a lot of work in China who knows how to navigate the whole system,” said Dr. Houle. “Cape Cod Hospital is the perfect place to be a destination for a medical tourism. We are just set up for it. We can provide personalized care, have a great brand new facility overlooking the ocean, and have all of the latest and greatest equipment that you can possibly want, so we want to do a good job.”

By CLAUDIA DOLPHIN, Cape Cod Health News

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