For more than two years, Ruth Lycke made little progress recovering from a stroke she suffered in November, 2001, when she was 42. Lycke, a former nurse and paramedic from Green Mountain, Iowa, was left with limited mobility on her right side and difficulty in speaking. She underwent extensive occupational therapy, physical therapy, and speech therapy, all paid for by her insurance company, but she didn't get well. In order to get around, "I had to throw myself from one piece of furniture to another," she recalls. By early 2004, what little progress she had made started slipping away. "I was tested, and I had actually gone backwards," Lycke says.
Fortunately for Lycke, over the years she and her husband had hosted exchange students from China. Seeing how Lycke was struggling with conventional treatment at home, some of them encouraged her to give traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) a try. In June 2004, Lycke flew to China and became a patient at a hospital in the northern city of Tianjin, a large industrial center near Beijing. For five months, she received an intensive regimen of acupuncture, deep-muscle massage, herbal medication, steam therapy, and exercise. And, to her delight, she got better. "I can walk long distances, I have all my feeling restored, I have no problem thinking, my memory is restored, my vision is restored," she says. Of the staff at the Tianjin hospital, she says, "they gave me my life back."
Since then, Lycke has become a medical tourism pioneer, promoting China as a destination for patients interested in trying low-cost alternative therapies. She is the founder and CEO of China Connection, a small company of nine employees (three in the U.S. and six in China) that coordinates logistics for people interested in receiving both TCM and Western medical treatment in China. The company has sent more than 100 people from the U.S., Canada, Britain, Australia, Japan, and other countries to China. Many are stroke survivors like Lycke, but there are also people traveling for orthopedic surgery, weight reduction treatment, cosmetic surgery, and other needs.
Like other medical-tourism destinations, China has a big advantage over the U.S. in costs. The expense of a knee or hip replacement in China is about $8,000, compared with $45,000 or $50,000 in the U.S., at the high end. Most stroke patients who travel to China for TCM therapy of the sort Lycke received will pay about $20,000 for three months, she adds.
With the U.S. economy struggling, it might become harder for most American patients to spend that kind of money on a China excursion. Still, Lycke says she's optimistic the financial crisis won't hurt China Connection's business. The company has been in talks with an insurance provider in the U.S. to add two Chinese hospitals to its list of recognized overseas providers. And over the past month, China Connection has seen a 10% increase in requests for information, she says, as employers look for ways to save money by encouraging workers to travel overseas for less expensive health care. The downturn "has forced companies into reality mode," she says. "They have to find ways to cover their people."
Lycke recognizes plenty of people have their doubts about TCM, which doesn't have the same scientific foundation as Western medicine. She acknowledges the skeptics have good reason to be concerned. "There are always going to be charlatans out there," she says. "You have to do due diligence." That said, as a survivor of a stroke who once had little hope of recovering fully, she says it's important for patients to know they have alternatives. Too often in the U.S., "the doctors look at you and say be content with what you have," says Lycke. "They are not willing to go any further. If you have no other choice, no other hope, no other options in front of you, you are willing to stretch the marketplace."