Ingenuity and Experience Catapult SeeHealth to the Forefront of the Medical Tourism Industry
In 2018, Yiyang Xi went to an event that literally saved his life. Xi had been diagnosed with a retroperitoneal tumor and had seen countless Chinese doctors and specialists in search of treatment. However, given the size and position of the tumor, none of the physicians he consulted could come up with an effective treatment protocol. Not one to give up hope, Xi learned about a company named SeeHealth that connected Chinese citizens with overseas medical care and attended one of their patient gathering events in Beijing.
At this point, he had been given a seven-month life expectancy window and had been keeping his disease a secret from his family. He was extremely apprehensive about traveling to a foreign country for treatment, but he had run out of options—or so he thought. At these “meet and greets” events, SeeHealth brings American and Chinese physicians together to educate both parties about new developments and research. Xi decided to sign on, and the SeeHealth team moved quickly to gather his up-to-date medical records and images to obtain a second opinion from U.S. physicians remotely. Good news came back: Dr. Scherr, from New York-Presbyterian Hospital, had recommended a course of treatment that seemed exceptionally promising.
Motivated by sheer desperation and the desire to see his six-year-old daughter grow up, Xi boarded the plane for New York City. In the interim, SeeHealth conducted extensive patient screening and education, secured Xi’s medical travel visa, and made all necessary arrangements — including flights, lodging, medical and daily interpreters, and arranging a cook to prepare healthy meals redolent of his home during the stay.
The surgeons managed to remove Xi’s tumor with exceptional skill, and he was discharged within 48 hours of admittance. Reflecting on the overall experience, Xi exclaimed, “I was so pampered by the medical service here [in the United States]. I have never felt so thankful. Now I can spend another 20 years watching my daughter grow up.”
Since his return, SeeHealth has coordinated ongoing care with his treating doctor in the U.S. and his primary doctor in China. Xi is currently living a full and pain-free life, has returned to work, and is relishing time with his family. This type of dedication and follow-through is a hallmark of SeeHealth’s unique approach and stellar success rate.
SeeHealth hit the ground running in early 2017, and has since forged a stronger and stronger presence in the medical tourism industry. In 2019, the company received the International Medical Health Tourism’s awards for Best Patient Referral and Best Patient Experience, and 2020 looks to be their most successful year yet. Founder and CEO Ran Yang has a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Columbia University and worked as a research scientist at New York Presbyterian-Columbia University Medical Center prior to launching SeeHealth. While Yang was living in New York, she arranged medical appointments in the U.S. for her family and friends’ parents in China. The caliber of care and level of personal service proved far superior to that which they received at home. Yang says, “It was then that I realized that my passion for helping others could be channeled into a career to facilitate access to superior healthcare. I wanted to build a company that could guide individuals and families to make well-informed medical choices and lead happier, healthier lives. Thus, SeeHealth was born.”
The medical tourism industry is growing rapidly in China. The country’s largest travel platform, Ctrip, projects that the number of citizens taking medical-related trips is expected to grow to one million by 2020, a huge leap from previous numbers. Most Chinese medical tourism travel is to Europe and Japan. Japan is geographically the most proximate option, and its physicians have access to the latest medical technologies, practice in sleek and clean facilities, and have established a reputation within China as a model of modern and effective healthcare. Most of those who travel abroad do so for relatively simple procedures like plastic surgery or routine examinations and the initial impetus for medical tourism was to find cheaper treatment and surgical options. However, that is a reversing trend. The rise in critical and chronic illnesses alongside an increasingly affluent middle and upper class has opened up another market sector.
A snapshot of China’s healthcare system reveals why the medical tourism industry has skyrocketed. The country is plagued by overcrowded public hospitals; ill-prepared physicians; understaffed facilities; lack of contemporary treatments, technologies, and medications; and negative overall consumer experience. China’s middle and upper classes have grown steadily over the last decades, but its healthcare system has not. Additionally, China’s most affluent citizens now possess the means to travel beyond the country’s borders for superior medical care. And, given current disease rates, doing so is not merely a choice between a shared room and a cozy private bed — in many cases, it is the only chance a patient has of survival. There are currently nearly 300 million Chinese with chronic disease, accounting for the overwhelming majority of deaths. This fact means that China has reached a tipping point where chronic conditions have surpassed infectious diseases as the leading cause of early deaths. This, in turn, means that the need for critical healthcare and monitoring is only expected to grow, creating a unique opportunity and the necessity for alternative and innovative solutions.
“Medical tourism is a new type of industry that integrates tourism and health services,” said Jianying Man, partner of SeeHealth and managing partner of Ying Fund Venture Capital. “From minor services such as health examination to advanced diagnosis and treatment, the disparity in technology, price, and quality of services between different countries is escalating. More and more, people are seeking medical services across borders as a result. ”
When asked about the biggest driving force of the medical tourism industry, Jianying Man ranks the factors, “First of all, superb medical skills and techniques. Secondly, medical system restrictions. Thirdly, excellent service and shortened wait times. And lastly, the diversity of drugs.”
This is the driving force behind SeeHealth’s success. Yang explains, “We help people navigate an incredibly turbulent time of their lives and a complex and overwhelming healthcare system. We provide A-Z solutions, and offer options and education, privacy and transparency.” At the core of SeeHealth’s approach is the belief that although every patient and disease presentation is different, everyone deserves the same hope for effective and life-altering treatment. They also understand that every client has a unique financial and health profile and so they provide clients with a list of tiered services, presenting multiple treatment options and enumerating the pros and cons of each choice.
To help U.S. and Chinese clients attain top-notch treatment and care around the world, SeeHealth adheres to rigorous screening criteria for all clients, partners exclusively with top-accredited hospitals, and stays on top of global research trends and clinical trials. Their agile and persistent monitoring of experimental protocols marks one of the hallmarks of the company’s unique strengths and stems directly from Yang’s research background and expertise.
It takes an average of 5-7 years after FDA approval for Chinese doctors and patients to gain access to medications. Moreover, in China, treatment plans are not individuated by disease presentation or other criteria: e.g., all patients with lung cancer are treated with the same, often outdated medications. In contrast, in the U.S., patients receive a personalized treatment plan that takes into account multiple factors regarding their overall health profile, the stage and type of cancer, and numerous other criteria for assessing care.
Access to clinical trials, experimental protocols, and new medications is especially vital for patients with late-stage cancer. In 2019, patient LY (initials used for anonymity) was diagnosed with Stage IV esophagus cancer. His case had been rejected by both Chinese and Japanese hospitals and doctors had told him that he would only live for three months at most. After LY’s consult with SeeHealth, Yang and her team mobilized their research savvy and referral network to facilitate interviews for five clinical trials in Los Angeles, including those at City of Hope, Cedars-Sinai, UCLA, and USC hospitals. As of this article, LY has been receiving immunotherapy and radiation treatment for several months, and in that course of time, his symptoms (including difficulty swallowing and tremendous overall pain) have improved significantly or disappeared entirely. In between treatments, LY has even traveled back to China to spend time with family and friends.
The medical tourism industry is not without its critics and skeptics. Many Chinese believe that only the top medical centers, like the Mayo Clinic, can treat them successfully and approach overseas medical care with apprehension given the media coverage of malpractice suits filed against inexperienced companies. To counter these misconceptions, SeeHealth performs due diligence on all partnering physicians and hospitals and works exclusively with JCI-certified hospitals that have earned top rankings for their physicians’ expertise, treatment, and overall patient care.
Yang sums up the company’s philosophy and motivation aptly, “I am deeply gratified and humbled by SeeHealth’s continued success. I am privileged to assist clients who have reached a critical juncture in their health journey. Many are very sick and facing an uncertain future. Despite this adversity, they are fighting with all their might to live. Their courage, commitment, and tenacity continue to inspire my work.”