Puerto Rico looks to organ transplants to help cure ailing economy
NEW YORK – Fearing her husband would die waiting for a heart transplant in Miami, Carmen Concepcion started looking for a faster way to save his life, and found the answer in her native Puerto Rico.
Pablo, 59, could barely walk from the family room to the bathroom without growing short of breath, Carmen said.
She looked across the states for hospitals with shorter wait times until a friend recommended she consider her homeland. Carmen was hesitant but “gave it a chance.”
In December, Pablo received his heart transplant, becoming the first person to travel from the mainland to the U.S. commonwealth for the procedure, said Dr. Ivan Gonzalez-Cancel, his surgeon and the director of the heart transplant center at the Cardiovascular Center of Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. Pablo is now able to bike about a mile and climb four to five flights of steps.
Puerto Rico is trying to build its medical tourism industry, from a current level of about $80 million a year to $300 million by 2017, as part of efforts to heal its chronically sick economy. A component of that is to encourage more patients to travel for organ transplants.
Patients who visit for transplants, and for more common medical procedures such as orthopedics, dentistry and weight-loss surgery, spend thousands on hotels, transportation and food.
Puerto Rico’s potential as a transplant center is partly based on a macabre statistic – the Caribbean island had a murder and non-negligent manslaughter rate of 19.2 per 100,000 people in 2014 compared to 4.5 per 100,000 in the United States, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation data.
That translates into a pool of donors in the 18-30 age range unmatched in the mainland, Gonzalez-Cancel said. “The donors (are) victims of car accidents or gunshot wounds to the head, because Puerto Rico, sadly, we have a very high crime rate.”
High-crime areas certainly exist among the U.S. states, but Puerto Rico has recently also had organ donation rates higher than expected by the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients (SRTR), which analyses data on donated organs.
The cost of care is another attraction, at as much as 60 percent lower than on the mainland, according to the island government. Because Puerto Rico’s transplant centers are part of the national organ sharing network, US patients can transfer there as long as doctors admit them, with few other hurdles.
Pablo and Carmen Concepcion moved temporarily to Puerto Rico, and paid out-of-pocket for Pablo’s transplant and extended hospital stay beforehand. While that cost about $350,000, it was far less than it would have been on the mainland.
“I’d rather have a debt and he’s alive,” said Carmen, a teacher. Pablo, who is now disabled, was a truck driver. –Reuters