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Bon Voyage, Get Well Soon

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LASIK in Turkey, stem cell therapy in Thailand, tube babies in Spain – more and more Swiss people go abroad for treatments

By Odette Frey and Kurt Brandenberger


The glass doors slides open with a smooth sound. Pop music sounds from the corridor. Welcome to EyeSTAR, a clinic in Istanbul, which is specialized in eye laser surgery. The traffic outside brews in the heat and inside there is a relaxed exclusive club atmosphere. Gilbert Schiesser takes a Cola from the bar and sinks into the white leather furniture.

The 40-year-old father of two from Dielsdorf flew to Istanbul to have his eyes treated at EyeSTAR. Yesterday he checked into his hotel in the trendy quarter of Beyoglu. He will be treated today and the day after tomorrow he will be back home—with natural, clear vision.

The metropolis at the Bosphorus is the secret capital of LASIK, the most popular eye laser treatment which treats myopia (nearsightedness), hyperopia (farsightedness) and astigmatism. People looking for a good deal, particularly people from Western Europe, travel here to be freed from glasses and contact lenses: In Switzerland a Lasik operation costs 7000 Swiss Franks. This is a luxury which the health insurance companies do not compensate. Schiesser has to leave just a fraction of it in Istanbul: 1000 Euro.

Eye laser surgery in Turkey, liposuction in Tunisia, the long desired child in Spain – when it’s about excellent medical results, more and more Swiss are acting pragmatically. They travel abroad to get good medicine for little money. Or for medical services not offered in Switzerland such as egg cell donation or a new stem cell therapy for the heart. Lasik tourist Schiesser summarizes it briefly: "There are good surgeons abroad as well. Why I shouldn’t I be treated there?" Medical tourism is a world-wide phenomenon: Americans without health insurance and British who would have to wait at home for months for the operation, fly to Thailand, Singapore or India. There they can have heart bypass surgery, a new hip joint immediately and for a ridiculous price. If it was considered in former times a nightmare to become ill abroad, now people are flying ill abroad. "That could have an effect on the US health system, like the way the Japanese automobile industry affected America", says the Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt.

Club Medic instead of Club Med
Division of labor prevails in the global hospital: Cuba is considered as a haven for certain skin diseases, Brazil is a Mekka for cosmetic operations and South Africa lures with a safari after a facelift - Club Medic instead of Club Med. Gilbert Schiesser and the other five patients study the declaration of consent for Lasik. It is written in perfect German. Also two of the five employees, who take care of the patients, speak in fluent German. They strive for an atmophere in which patients can feel relaxed and well. Everybody is laughing and joking.

"THERE ARE GOOD DOCTORS ABROAD, TOO" LASIK TOURIST GILBERT SCHIESSER
The founder of the clinic, Dr. Gürkan Çelikkol, conducted research in two renowned universities in the U.S. and returned to Turkey with the goal of establishing “one of the best laser centers of the world”. That means also no mass treatment. They accept a maximum of 10 patients per day, 90% of whom are foreigners. "For us it is vital that the same surgeon is doing the pre-operation examination, the operation and the post-op examination," says Dr. Çelikkol. All EyeSTAR  surgeons have Lasik treatment experience of between 5,000 and 20,000. "We operate only patients who are really suitable for a Lasik. We find about 10% of patients as not suitable for Lasik because it would not bring them good results.”

It is early in the afternoon and Gilbert Schiesser lays on the bed in the operation room. The surgeon bends over him and two assistants are helping him. Twenty minutes have passed. "My expectations were exceeded," says a happy Schiesser the next day. "I already see astoundingly sharp".

Did Schiesser simply have good luck or can a Lasik operation in Turkey can actually be as good as with us? Yes, it can. But the differences from hospital to hospital, from surgeon to surgeon are as large in Turkey as here in our country. The quality depends on many factors. For instance of the technology. The laser in the EyeSTAR Institute is the Allegretto Wave Eye-Q 400 Hz . "Top moderne," certifies Swiss Lasik expert Farhad Hafezi, who works in the renowned private-ophthalmic clinic IROC in Zurich."There are many surgeons in Switzerland who are using older technology."

Hafezi says that most people without eye conditions can be treated at many places. "There is a general complication rate of about 5%". That’s why whoever looks for treatments abroad should avoid assembly-line type hospitals.

It is clear: Whether or not a Lasik treatment is successful is not a question of the country. A Turkish or Thai surgeon who specialized in Lasik, can probably do better work than the Swiss eye surgeon around the corner, who only does a few treatments per year. And with a bad pre-op examination a surgeon in Berne as well as in Bangalore can botch the eyes.
 

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