I am now 7 months into my battle with Nueroenocrine cancer. I have had way more contact with the medical community here in Chiang Mai than I ever wished for. I always figured that most people died in a hospital bed, so better to stay away. However, I now feel somewhat qualified to make some observations about health care in Thailand that might prove useful to anyone thinking about retiring or traveling here for medical care.
But first, a very brief update of my current status. I have now been on monthly injections of Sandostatin LAR for 5 months. These injections are not a cure, but intended to stop or slow the tumor growth, and stop or limit the proliferation of tumors. They do come with some unpleasant, but mostly bearable, digestive side-effects. Suffice it to say that if I had one of the more common side effects then, I would have been a cult hero in my fifth grade class. Last month, I traveled to Bangkok for another Gallium 68 PET scan. The scan showed no growth of my one known tumor, but continued to “light up” my prostate, suggesting something might be there too. Last week, I had a biopsy done on my prostate where my urologist turned it into a pin cushion by removing 24 small cores. Fortunately, I was in Lala Land at the time. Early this week I got the results: nothing at all going on there (except BPH which I have known about for years). Good news!
I will be meeting with my oncologists next week to discuss our next move (surgery or more Sandostatin injections are the two most likely). Unfortunately, the one known tumor is in my mesentery, and is very unlikely to be the primary. Where the hell is my primary? Most likely it is 1. too small to see, 2. gone already due to immune response, or 3. hidden away somewhere, most likely in the curlicues of my small intestine. Neuroendocrine tumors (NETs in the lingo) are sneaky nefarious bastards. Once they have metastasized they are nearly impossible to 100% expunge from your system via surgery or medicine. This will make the decision to cut or not to cut a difficult one….So that’s where I stand at the moment. In the meantime, digestive issues not-with-standing, I feel great and life goes on mostly as normal.
Medicine in Thailand
According to the World Health Organization, Thailand ranks #47 amongst 190 countries in terms of the quality of their healthcare system. For perspective, the U.S. ranks #37. Thailand, except for the tiny states of Brunei and Singapore, ranks number one in south-east Asia. Thailand ranks 65 spots above India that magnet for medical tourism. So by WHO standards, health care is pretty good here. My own experience corroborates this conclusion. But it is only good if you have money (or good insurance).
I receive most of my healthcare at Bangkok Hospital, Chiang Mai (BHCM). Bangkok hospital is a country-wide system of hospitals that was started by a Thai doctor in 1972 as the first private hospital in Thailand. Prasert Prasarttong-Osoth parlayed his medical degree into a $3.2 billion fortune that includes Bangkok Airways and 3 regional airports. BHCM is in my view the best hospital in Chiang Mai. From its welcoming lobby that exudes the ambiance of a 5 star hotel, replete with live music from grand piano, to its immaculately attired english speaking staff, to its state-of-the art equipment and spotlessly clean ORs and examining rooms, anyone will feel confidence in the care they are about to receive. But the quality of that care comes with some significant caveats.
In the course of my diagnosis and treatment, I have seen more than a dozen doctors. They all impressed me with their caring attitudes, and general intelligence. However they collectively are the product of an insular system of in-breading. Virtually every doctor in Chiang Mai obtained their medical degree from Chiang Mai University Medical School. Many are listed as faculty members there in addition to their hospital posts. Thai culture’s pronounced stratification, makes questioning one’s supervisors/seniors/elders difficulty at best. This just has to stifle innovation and the adaptation of new or alternative treatments.
I normally meet with two oncologists, one is an elderly woman listed as a professor emeritus at Chiang Mai medical school, the other is a youngish male with an MD degree from there. When I meet with them, she does 95% of the talking, while he mostly stares at his computer. She will suggest something, and he will do his best imitation of a MLB bobblehead doll. On the rare occasion when I meet with him alone, he becomes talkative, and full of ideas and intelligence. I would consider asking to be seen by just him, but I am afraid that it would make an irreparable rent in their cultural universe.
Another caveat is the lack of accountability. Malpractice lawsuits are nearly unheard of in Thailand outside of a few high-profile nose-jobs-gone-wrong that splash across the headlines. When a doctor makes even an egregious mistake, about the strongest reaction is “oops”. Doctor’s are looked up to in Thailand to a much greater extent than are western doctors. Thai patients seldom question their care, and confidently swallow unmarked pills given to them in completely unlabelled baggies with instructions of when and how many to take. There is a clear advantage for patients if doctors have a paranoid fear of being sued. I cannot say how much this accountability issue effects health care, but it will weigh heavily on me if I have to decide on invasive surgery.
The bottom line for now is that my health care has, in my view, been very good. My doctors’ decisions have been verified to the extent possible by Dr. Google and his myriad colleagues. I also received a “virtual” second opinion from an oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic, who, after reviewing all my records, scans, and even my original tissue biopsy samples, concluded that the care I have been receiving is spot on. But my disease is uncommon, complicated, and varies from case to case. Experience here is lacking so I may have to consider returning at some point in the future for evaluation at one of the handful of “NET Centers” in the USA.