EXPORTING HEALTH CARE: High-Tech Medicine Goes to Italy
A new transplant center in Sicily, Italy, financed by the Italian government but run by the University of Pittsburgh, represents a "new frontier for American high-tech exports," the Wall Street Journal reports. The center, called Ismett, is currently the "most ambitious international effort" by a U.S. medical center. In Sicily, there is an old joke about health care. "What's the best Sicilian hospital? Answer: An airplane - - to someplace else." Although the quality of medical care for Italy will not change overnight, the new joint venture between Americans and Italians is promising. "If we learn to do this successfully, we will have developed a technology -- running a major, high-quality facility overseas -- that's eminently exportable to Egypt and Turkey and other countries," Jeffrey Romoff, president of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Health System, said.
The facility, temporarily housed in the aging Civico Hospital, will be replaced by a $75 million hospital to open in July 2001. It is already the first in Sicily to perform liver transplants. Alfred Valenza, a resident of nearby Partinico, did not make the waiting list in Munich because he was a foreigner, but was accepted as one of the center's first patients. Since the transplant, Valenza is "back running his driver-education school" and teaching his nine-year-old son jujitsu. "There's a mindset in Sicily that a good thing can't be done here. But this is different," he said. Due to depressed revenues in managed care and government cutbacks, U.S. medical centers have "wooed well- paying patients" from abroad, but international efforts such as the Ismett joint venture, allow medical centers to "set up shop overseas." Steven Thompson, CEO of Johns Hopkins International, which recently opened a 36-bed outpatient cancer clinic in Singapore, said, "To be viable in the future, you need to think globally and not be limited by geography."
Despite the excitement, many health care experts contend that trying to run "brick and mortar operations" abroad is financially risky. "Even America can't afford American health care, so it's not realistic to think the rest of the world can afford it," Robert Crone, dean for international programs at Harvard Medical School, said. In 1994, two former Harvard faculty members opened a hospital in Scotland and "failed miserably when they were unable to attract enough patients" (McGinley, 2/14).