The World’s Cheapest Hospital Has to Get Even Cheaper

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

By Ari Altstedter

It was only after a junior surgeon opened the patient’s chest, splitting his sternum with a quick buzz from a handsaw and cranking a savage-looking retractor to pin open his rib cage, that the rare and lethal disease became visible.

A normal heart has the rough dimensions of an apple, but the beige and purple mass beating between the man’s ribs had inflated to the size of a cantaloupe—the result of clots in his pulmonary artery that were blocking the flow of blood to his lungs. With his own circulatory system effectively strangling him from the inside, his heart had swollen from the effort of keeping him alive. In the West, the condition would almost never be allowed to progress this far. But the patient, an outwardly healthy 31-year-old, lives in a remote city in western India, where doctors had no idea how sick he was. At such a late stage, the only way to save his life was this difficult and dangerous operation at Narayana Health City in Bangalore.

After the body was cooled to protect against brain damage while the patient’s heart was stopped, a nurse dimmed the overhead lights and the junior surgeon stood back, clearing space for Dr. Devi Shetty, wearing an LED headlamp and loose dark-blue scrubs, to get to work. Shetty, 65, is tall and lean, with large brown eyes and a high, prominent nose. After collecting himself for a moment, he began digging deep into the pulmonary artery with scissors and forceps to remove the clots one by one, keeping his arms pinned tightly to his sides to reduce unwanted motion. Soft and sticky, the masses kept breaking apart as Shetty tried to secure his hold on them. But slowly the clots emerged, some congealed into floppy circles the size of a quarter, others with tiny arms where they’d branched off into capillaries, like miniature squids. Shetty had almost no margin for error. Miss one, and the whole ordeal would be for nothing; move too aggressively, and a slip could puncture a lung. It took 90 minutes to get them all.

A pulmonary thromboendarterectomy, the surgery Shetty performed, can tie up an operating room for most of a day. In the U.S., the procedure can cost more than $200,000. Shetty did it for about $10,000 and turned a profit. A cardiac surgeon by training, Shetty is the founder and chairman of Narayana Health, a chain of 23 hospitals across India that may be the cheapest full-service health-care provider in the world. To American eyes, Narayana’s prices look as if they must be missing at least one zero, even as outcomes for patients meet or exceed international benchmarks. Surgery for head and neck cancers starts at $700. Endoscopy is $14; a lung transplant, $7,000. Even a heart transplant will set a patient back only about $11,000. Narayana is dirt cheap even by Indian standards, with the investment bank Jefferies estimating that it can profitably offer some major surgeries for as little as half what domestic rivals charge.

Photo courtesy of Keoni Cabral.

Source: Bloomberg (link opens in a new window)

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