Medical Tourism Is Booming, Fueled by High Costs and Slow Access

Feature Story

Bridget Snell traveled to Mexico to access an unapproved stem cell therapy for MS.

(Photo credits Suzanne Ouellette, left, and Christian Fregnan on Unsplash)


When Bridget Snell found out she had multiple sclerosis, she knew she would put up a fight. The 45 year-old mother of two, who lives in Duxbury, Mass., researched options to slow the progress of the disease. The methods she had been trying were invasive, often with side effects of their own.

An estimated 2.2 million Americans will travel abroad for medical care in 2020.

Then she stumbled upon autologous hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (AHSCT), an experimental and controversial procedure that uses the patient's own stem cells to try to halt the progress of the disease. The FDA has not approved this procedure and last year issued a warning about unapproved stem cell therapies.

Despite the lack of established science, Snell weighed her options and decided she would undergo the procedure at Clinica Ruiz, a private clinic in Puebla, Mexico, which boasts of the largest volume of cases in the world using the procedure to treat MS. In April 2018, she went to Mexico for treatment, returned home in a month, and continues to do well.

But a positive outcome is far from assured, says Sheldon Krimsky, adjunct professor in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at the Tufts School of Medicine.

"Often you can't get a good sense of what the quality of treatment is in another country," Krimsky says, adding that many companies promise procedures whose results have not been clinically validated. "Unfortunately, people are very easily persuaded by hope."

Traveling for Medical Care

Snell is one of many Americans who have traveled abroad to access medical care. Patients Beyond Borders, a medical tourism consultancy, estimates that 2.2 million Americans will do so in 2020. A 2018 BCC report projected a five-year compounded annual industry growth rate of 13.2 percent. Adding to the demand is the aging population, which is expected to reach 95 million people by 2060 – nearly double the number in 2018.

While Snell traveled to Mexico to try a procedure that was not yet available in the United States, other patients do so for a variety of reasons, primarily cost and speed of access. For example, despite having "pretty good insurance coverage," Washington resident Soniya Gadgil needed dental procedures that would have cost thousands of dollars out-of-pocket. An India native, she decided to travel to Pune, India to visit her parents -- and while there, she got the two root canals and implant that she needed. Gadgil saved 60 percent on the final bill.

Leaving the country for medical care is not restricted to dental work or FDA-banned procedures either. Patients visit countries around the world — South America, Central America, and the Caribbean top the list — for a number of other problems, such as knee and hip replacements and bariatric operations. The most common procedures sought abroad are for dentistry, cosmetic surgery, and cardiac conditions.

Traveling abroad to access less expensive procedures is a damning indictment of healthcare delivery in the United States, says Dr. Leigh Turner, associate professor at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota. "We have people who are being forced out of the system because of high costs. Collectively it suggests a real structural problem in terms of the organization of healthcare in the United States," Turner says.

The Growth of the Online Marketplace

Nevertheless, medical tourism is booming and a number of online businesses now meet patients' demand for discovery and facilitation of medical care abroad, like PlanMyMedicalTrip.com, Doctoorum.com, and Wellness Travels.

Anurav Rane, CEO and Founder of PlanMyMedicalTrip.com, says the company presents each potential client with options, a la Expedia. A knee replacement in India costs $2,500, a significantly cheaper option even with a $1,110 round-trip airfare from the United States, Rane says. The average cost for an inpatient total knee replacement in the United States in 2019 was a little more $30,000.

Once the client chooses a specific procedure at a specific hospital, the company facilitates the necessary groundwork including the medical visa, tickets, hotel stay, booking the procedure and pre and post-op stay, and consults with the surgeons or doctors even before arrival. "The hassle of planning is on us," Rane says. Once patients are settled in the accommodations, they undergo the procedure.

Playing in the Legal Shadows

The online marketplace companies and the medical team execute an orchestrated dance – but what happens if the patient is harmed during or after the procedure?

Turner says that medical malpractice, if it occurs, can be difficult to pursue abroad. "There are countries where the courts are notoriously slow and it's very difficult to get any kind of meaningful action and settlements," he says, even if the claims have a legitimate basis.

The industry's biggest challenge is trust.

Snell signed a waiver absolving her surgeons in Mexico of any legal claims. But, she points out, that's standard process even for procedures in the United States. "I signed just as many waivers as I would going into any surgery [in the US]."

While that might well be true, Turner argues, Americans don't waive legal rights when they sign consent forms. "There are some protections for patients here in the United States."

Beyond U.S. Medical Tourism

As expected, it's not just Americans who travel abroad for medical care. Lithuania-based Wellness Travels sees a significant percentage of its clients from the EU. PlanMyMedicaltrip.com has 15,000 surgeons and doctors from 12 countries in its database. Egypt-based Doctoorum works with professionals in its own country and attracts clients from the Middle East. It is looking to expand to include doctors from Jordan and India, among other countries.

The term "tourism" is misleading here because it muddies the picture about what post-op should really look like, says Gediminas Kondrackis of Wellness Travels. "Unfortunately a lot of medical travel facilitators mislead their clients by advertising beach holiday packages and the like. Post-op is really about quiet recovery inside for a few days; being out in the sun is not advisable."

The industry's biggest challenge is trust. "The dentist I went to is actually a friend of mine who has a successful practice for several years," says Gadgil, the Washington resident who had dental work done in India. "I'd hesitate to go to someone I don't know or to a place I have no experience with." Her apprehensions are not unusual. After all, anxiety is an expected reaction to any surgery. Word-of-mouth, cost savings, and thorough research may alleviate some of these trust issues.

"I had natural apprehensions and would have had them had I gone up the road to Brigham and Women's (in Boston) just as I did over the border," Snell says, "but I had done my homework extensively. That took a lot of the fear out of it."

Medical tourism will only increase, predicts Kondrackis. "There is still a lot of room to grow. Higher numbers of medical travelers could help reduce the strain on local healthcare systems by reducing wait times and controlling costs."

While patients who have benefited from medical tourism swear by it, the best cure would be to start at home by establishing healthcare equity, Krimsky says.

On the flip side, says Turner, it is debatable whether medical tourism actually benefits host countries, where local residents might get priced out of procedures at these exclusive clinics. Even if laws in host countries such as India might mandate "charity care" for poorer local patients, that does not always happen, Turner says. The trickle-down theory that these more expensive clinics will broaden access to care is often a pipe dream, he adds.

While patients who have benefited from medical tourism swear by it, the best cure would be to start at home by establishing healthcare equity, Krimsky says. "Now if we had universal healthcare in the United States," he adds, "that would be an entirely different story."

Or maybe not. Rane, of PlanMyMedicalTrip.com, has observed an influx of patients to India from Canada, a country with universal healthcare.

The reason they say they travel for care? Long wait times for procedures.

Poornima Apte
Poornima Apte is an engineer turned award-winning freelance writer with clips in publications such as OZY, The Week, TechCrunch, JSTOR Daily and more.
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Alma Mater, a beloved bronze mother figure on the campus of the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, wears a mask to encourage students to do the same as they return for the fall semester. Students are also expected to take a COVID-19 test twice a week.

UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS/FRED ZWICKY

China, South Korea and other places controlled the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic with the early use of strict lockdown and aggressive electronic contact tracing, monitoring, and enforcement.

The tussles in America over voluntary social distancing and wearing a mask in public suggest that more stringent enforcement methods adopted elsewhere would not work here. But one American university has emerged as a model of tough love pandemic management.

While many universities have become hot spots of COVID-19 infections this fall when students returned to campus, the University of Illinois was an exception. It has gotten the virus under control, at least for the moment, at a rate that is far below the national average and with minimal social disruption. Can the program they implemented work in our broader society?

The Illinois model is a comprehensive one which, as elsewhere, includes masking and social distancing, but it also requires a twice-weekly saliva test for SARS-CoV-2. All students and employees are assigned test days when they swipe their ID card and spit in a plastic tube, which is collected hourly and taken to a campus lab.

There a simplified but highly sensitive PCR genetic test goes through many cycles of amplifying the viral RNA. "Tracking three different viral RNA [genes] gives us very high accuracy," explains Martin Burke, the professor who developed the system and is monitoring its implementation at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. They immediately retest any positive sample to confirm the results, "So we think our false positive rate is extremely low. … The goal is to notify the positive person within 30 minutes of a positive test results becoming known."


Testing everyone so frequently, with a sensitive test that can quickly detect small amounts of the virus soon after infection, and isolating those who test positive before the virus can grow to volumes that make it very infectious helps the Illinois system break the chain of transmission.

"The testing we have done is not a silver bullet, it has to be done in combination with other mitigation measures. Our modeling shows that if you have masks, social distancing, and contact tracing you get a very dramatic, in fact synergistic effect with this combination,' says Burke. "So it really has to be a holistic approach with lots of community engagement in order to make this process successful."

The real teeth of enforcement are that people have to display their health status to gain access to campus facilities. A green check mark over their photo on a college ID phone app means they are good to go but a big red X means they are not current on their testing or have tested positive for the virus. Their ID is inactivated and they cannot enter campus facilities until they become compliant. Burke puts it bluntly; "We stop them from going where they want to go, a measure first used successfully with the pandemic in Wuhan, China.

He says they have learned from their experience and evolved their approach. "We never modeled for people who tested positive to ignore that result and go to or host parties, which could spread the infection." But several students did just that, and a few have been suspended for it.

So the university clamped down on enforcing isolation and now requires some higher risk persons to test three times a week to catch any infections earlier. Since more than 95 percent of new infections were among undergraduates, with no crossover from them to the local community, faculty, or graduate students, they have cut back testing of the latter two groups to just once a week.

About a thousand positive tests results have come back so far but no one has been hospitalized. Part of that likely is because the undergraduate population is largely young and healthy with few risk cofactors. But it may also be that with early identification and isolation, about five percent of dorm rooms have been set aside for that purpose, the person adopts healthier patterns of sleeping and eating that allows the immune system to better fight off the virus.

"But when you compare that to the being able to educate our students, perform research, keep our community thriving, our businesses open, if you add it all up, it's a tremendous return on investment."

The logistics are quite impressive for the campus that in ordinary times is home to more than 50,000 students; a lab capable of churning through 20,000 tests a day, with notification of results within hours, not days as is common elsewhere. And the results are equally impressive. The rate of positive test results blipped up to around 3 percent when undergraduates arrived back on campus but that has plummeted to 0.35 percent for the last seven-day period of testing, a tiny fraction of the rate for the nation as a whole. Much of it can be attributed to the closed environment with limited outside contact that might reintroduce the virus.

Still, even while the campus population has dropped by about a third, they are detecting about 250 new infections a week.

The threat of outside contact adding to the risk is why the university amended the undergraduate school calendar to close for Thanksgiving, hold final classes and exams for the semester online, and not return until February.

It doesn't come cheap. Burke estimates it cost $10 million to set up the program and about the same each semester to operate. "But when you compare that to the being able to educate our students, perform research, keep our community thriving, our businesses open, if you add it all up, it's a tremendous return on investment."

Burke acknowledges that they started with some significant advantages. The community is geographically isolated, an electronically linked ID system was already in place for students and employees, they have the ability to control much activity through access to buildings, and they can expel those who do not conform. He believes their system can translate to similar settings but admits, "A big city is very different from a university community." Still, he believes many of those lessons can be translated to different settings.

An alternative story

However, the situation is very different at the University of Colorado, where new infections have surged since undergraduates returned in late August. Administrators recently switched all classes to online only in an attempt to control the virus.

But that wasn't enough for state authorities who cracked down further, just yesterday declaring a two-week lockdown of all students aged 18 to 22, prohibiting gatherings of any size, indoors or out. Students must stay in their rooms except for essential activities, and if any symptoms develop, report for testing. Fraternities and sororities were targeted as past hot spots of infection.

The police will be actively enforcing the lockdown, and violators can face a penalty of up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Skepticism

Public health largely is based upon an appeal to self-interest and altruism, and voluntary compliance with official guidance. Harm reduction often comes into play when an ideal solution meets resistance and coercion plays only a limited role, as when a person with infectious tuberculosis is not compliant with treatment. Many question whether the medical threat of COVID-19 justifies such a sweeping restriction of individual rights of movement and association imposed on everyone simply because of their age and place of residence as is happening in Colorado.

State and federal courts have begun to strike down as an unconstitutional overreach some of the more restrictive decrees to stay at home or close businesses ordered by state and local officials. What was once tolerated as a few weeks or even a few months of restrictions now seems to stretch without an end in sight, and threatens peoples' livelihoods. In this litigious country it seems only a matter of time before someone will challenge some aspects of the Illinois model or similar programs being set up elsewhere as an infringement of their rights.

"I have real concerns about what we have seen over the course of the past several months in terms of going from not enough testing being available to now having more testing [available] because people don't want to be tested, even when they have symptoms," says Michael Osterholm, a noted expert on pandemic preparedness at the University of Minnesota. "We have some college campuses reporting over fifty percent of the students refusing to be tested or refusing to give any of the contacts that might be followed up on."

Often those who have tested positive for the virus "don't want people to know that they're the potential reason there could be an outbreak in their small social circle," says LaQuandra Nesbitt, public health director for Washington, DC. Stigma is one of the main reasons why only 37% of newly infected people have provided names for contact tracing in D.C., and few offer more than a single name.

"We can't test every single person every single day, we would completely go broke, we would be looking at no other health problems. We're not the NFL," says Monica Gandhi. She is a professor of medicine at the University of California San Francisco and works closely with local health officials. "Just because we have a technology doesn't mean that we have to apply it for every purpose that may be indicated. … We would never dream of mass screening the public for influenza."

"Tests don't solve the problem," she argues. Masking is the most crucial piece for Gandhi, along with social distancing, washing hands regularly, and quarantine when testing positive or in contact with someone who is. Those are the actions that break the ongoing spread of transmission. She does support regular testing in high-risk settings such as nursing homes, inpatients in hospitals, and prisons, and periodic surveys in the general population to better understand where the virus is moving.

Drawing from experience with HIV, Gandhi worries that the stigma of a positive result will drive people away from testing. "Low-income persons will be particularly hesitant to get tested, or to share contact information if they do test positive, if they think they may have to quarantine, not work or gain income." That is why San Francisco initially assisted people in isolation with payment of $1285 for two weeks of isolation and other support as part of a right to health program. And this fall, the State of California passed legislation requiring that large businesses continue to pay employees in quarantine.

Tools for self-protection

The American temperament, decentralization, size, administrative complexity, and sheer cost make it highly unlikely that a coercive one-size-fits-all Illinois approach will ever be rolled out from a university campus to the entire nation. People make different decisions in trading off between safety and personal freedom or autonomy, and many are likely to embrace a rapid, inexpensive self-test if one becomes available, much like a home pregnancy test, to proactively monitor their own health.

OraSure Technologies pioneered the first home test for HIV. It initially used a drop of blood and later saliva, and is the only over-the-counter saliva test for HIV approved for sale in the U.S. Results show in about 15 minutes. The company went on to develop versions of this test for hepatitis C and Ebola. Thus it came as no surprise when in April the Department of Health and Human Services awarded it a $710 million contract to develop a rapid home test for SARS-CoV-2.

Initial optimization studies showed that a nasal sample rather than an oral one generated better results, OraSure president Stephen Tang told LeapsMag. A test using a nasal swab will be available later this year while work continues to develop a test that uses saliva. He says, "the fundamental challenge is not only to develop the tests but to get it to scale quickly. That's the only way it's really going to matter." The company is producing 35 million tests a year, about half for SARS-CoV-2, and will double that capacity in steps within the next twelve months, with all of the increased capacity dedicated to COVID-19.

Initial use will be limited to health care workers and by prescription, but the company hopes to make it available over the counter soon after the FDA finalizes its rules on these types of tests for COVID-19. Importantly, OraSure believes its nasal swab test will be able to meet the current FDA standards for at-home tests. No such tests have yet been approved.

Tang says they envision using a phone app with the test, but that's tied to "the question of our century; who owns the data? If you are an individual buying the test, are you really compelled to report to anybody? If you are an employer and you buy the test and your employees take it, are you then entitled to the information because you're the one administering the test? That's all still being debated as well" by regulators, lawyers, and ethicists.

The price hasn't been set but Tang notes that they have "vast experience" in selling directly to the consumer, physicians, and public health systems in the U.S. and in lower-income companies. "We are very aware of what the economics are and what the need is today. We're trying to make this product as widely available to as many people as possible."

Another tool that may help protect the self-motivated are cell phone apps that alert you to potential exposure to others with the virus. Apple, Google and others have developed versions of the app that all work on the same principle and, miraculously, are compatible between the Apple and Android operating system universes. At first glance they look promising.

The glitch is that where they have been available the longest, only about 15-20 percent of users bother to download it, says Bennett Cyphers, a staff technologist with the Electronic Freedom Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit that advocates for privacy and other concerns in cyberspace. He explains, "If 1 in 10 people have the app installed, then only 1 in 100 interactions between everyone is going to be captured by the app. It scales that way; the fewer people you have, then a really, really small fraction of contacts are actually detected."

It is important to remember that much of public health is not the result of policy but of what people do in their daily lives.

Importantly, about 20 percent of Americans do not own a smart phone with the capacity to handle the app; that percentage is even higher among lower income, less educated, older folks who often are most at risk for suffering a severe case of COVID-19. So the value of this tool is likely to remain largely theoretical.

Divining the future

"It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future," the great baseball sage Yogi Berra is reported to have said. Will the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. follow the path of Illinois or Colorado?

The recent past often is no guide to such predictions. France, Spain, and Israel once earned plaudits for early and strict enforcement of lockdowns to control spread of the virus and then eased up on those restrictions. At the same time the world watched with condemnation and fascination as Sweden chose to follow a more laissez faire approach, urging voluntary distancing and masking but no major curtailing of activity.

Today the rates of new infections of COVID-19 in the first three countries have exploded to equal or multiples of the rate in Sweden. Which approach was the correct policy? Most people say it is still too early to tell for sure. The same can be said for the examples of Illinois and Colorado.

And then there is the puzzling example of Manaus, the Brazilian city of 1.8 million in the middle of the Amazon which was slammed with infections as hard as New York City; without the medical infrastructure to cope with the virus, 4000 have died. But then, suddenly, new infections began to taper off, and nobody claims to understand why, it certainly wasn't because official policies changed. One guess is that perhaps the region reached herd immunity, but that is simply speculation.

One can pick and choose examples of tough enforcement of quarantine or none to prove their point for the short term. But draconian measures will not be tolerated for long in a free society, and there is no clear, overwhelming evidence that over the long run one policy approach works better than another.

It is important to remember that much of public health is not the result of policy but of what people do in their daily lives. We have come remarkably far in what is still only months since we first heard the name of the virus. Death rates have fallen dramatically as we have learned how to better manage severe disease, often by adapting treatments for other diseases. And there is reason for optimism with the large number of vaccine candidates already in human trials.

We also have learned that we can control much of our own fate through simple but concerted actions in our daily lives such as social distancing, wearing masks, and washing hands. Let's not only remember those facts, but practice them.

Bob Roehr
Bob Roehr is a biomedical journalist based in Washington, DC. Over the last twenty-five years he has written extensively for The BMJ, Scientific American, PNAS, Proto, and myriad other publications. He is primarily interested in HIV, infectious disease, immunology, and how growing knowledge of the microbiome is changing our understanding of health and disease. He is working on a book about the ways the body can at least partially control HIV and how that has influenced (or not) the search for a treatment and cure.

A mannequin of a 24-week-old fetus replicated from MR imaging. Created by: Juliette van Haren, Mark Thielen, Jasper Sterk, Chet Bangaru, and Frank Delbressine, Department of Industrial Design, Eindhoven University of Technology.

(Credit: Frans van de Vosse)

In 2017, researchers at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia grew extremely preterm lambs from hairless to fluffy inside a "biobag," a dark, fluid-filled bag designed to mimic a mother's womb.

"There could be quite a lot of infants that would benefit from artificial womb technologies."

This happened over the course of a month, across a delicate period of fetal development that scientists consider the "edge of viability" for survival at birth.

In 2019, Australian and Japanese scientists repeated the success of keeping extremely premature lambs inside an artificial womb environment until they were ready to survive on their own. Those researchers are now developing a treatment strategy for infants born at "the hard limit of viability," between 20 and 23 weeks of gestation. At the same time, Dutch researchers are going so far as to replicate the sound of a mother's heartbeat inside a biobag. These developments signal exciting times ahead--with a touch of science fiction--for artificial womb technologies. But is there a catch?

"There could be quite a lot of infants that would benefit from artificial womb technologies," says Josephine Johnston, a bioethicist and lawyer at The Hastings Center, an independent bioethics research institute in New York. "These technologies can decrease morbidity and mortality for infants at the edge of viability and help them survive without significant damage to the lungs or other problems," she says.

It is a viewpoint shared by Frans van de Vosse, leader of the Cardiovascular Biomechanics research group at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. He participates in a university project that recently received more than $3 million in funding from the E.U. to produce a prototype artificial womb for preterm babies between 24 and 28 weeks of gestation by 2024.

The Eindhoven design comes with a fluid-based environment, just like that of the natural womb, where the baby receives oxygen and nutrients through an artificial placenta that is connected to the baby's umbilical cord. "With current incubators, when a respiratory device delivers oxygen into the lungs in order for the baby to breathe, you may harm preterm babies because their lungs are not yet mature for that," says van de Vosse. "But when the lungs are under water, then they can develop, they can mature, and the baby will receive the oxygen through the umbilical cord, just like in the natural womb," he says.

His research team is working to achieve the "perfectly natural" artificial womb based on strict mathematical models and calculations, van de Vosse says. They are even employing 3D printing technology to develop the wombs and artificial babies to test in them--the mannequins, as van de Vosse calls them. These mannequins are being outfitted with sensors that can replicate the environment a fetus experiences inside a mother's womb, including the soothing sound of her heartbeat.

"The Dutch study's artificial womb design is slightly different from everything else we have seen as it encourages a gestateling to experience the kind of intimacy that a fetus does in pregnancy," says Elizabeth Chloe Romanis, an assistant professor in biolaw at Durham Law School in the U.K. But what is a "gestateling" anyway? It's a term Romanis has coined to describe neither a fetus nor a newborn, but an in-between artificial stage.

"Because they aren't born, they are not neonates," Romanis explains. "But also, they are not inside a pregnant person's body, so they are not fetuses. In an artificial womb the fetus is still gestating, hence why I call it gestateling."

The terminology is not just a semantic exercise to lend a name to what medical dictionaries haven't yet defined. "Gestatelings might have a slightly different psychology," says Romanis. "A fetus inside a mother's womb interacts with the mother. A neonate has some kind of self-sufficiency in terms of physiology. But the gestateling doesn't do either of those things," she says, urging us to be mindful of the still-obscure effects that experiencing early life as a gestateling might have on future humans. Psychology aside, there are also legal repercussions.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims the "inalienable rights which everyone is entitled to as a human being," with "everyone" including neonates. However, such a legal umbrella is absent when it comes to fetuses, which have no rights under the same declaration. "We might need a new legal category for a gestateling," concludes Romanis.

But not everyone agrees. "However well-meaning, a new legal category would almost certainly be used to further erode the legality of abortion in countries like the U.S.," says Johnston.

The "abortion war" in the U.S. has risen to a crescendo since 2019, when states like Missouri, Mississippi, Kentucky, Louisiana and Georgia passed so-called "fetal heartbeat bills," which render an abortion illegal once a fetal heartbeat is detected. The situation is only bound to intensify now that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of the Supreme Court's fiercest champions for abortion rights, has passed away. If President Trump appoints Ginsburg's replacement, he will probably grant conservatives on the Court the votes needed to revoke or weaken Roe v. Wade, the milestone decision of 1973 that established women's legal right to an abortion.

"A gestateling with intermediate status would almost certainly be considered by some in the U.S. (including some judges) to have at least certain legal rights, likely including right-to-life," says Johnston. This would enable a fetus on the edge of viability to make claims on the mother, and lead either to a shortening of the window in which abortion is legal—or a practice of denying abortion altogether. Instead, Johnston predicts, doctors might offer to transfer the fetus to an artificial womb for external gestation as a new standard of care.

But the legal conundrum does not stop there. The viability threshold is an estimate decided by medical professionals based on the clinical evidence and the technology available. It is anything but static. In the 1970s when Roe v. Wade was decided, for example, a fetus was considered legally viable starting at 28 weeks. Now, with improved technology and medical management, "the hard limit today is probably 20 or 21 weeks," says Matthew Kemp, associate professor at the University of Western Australia and one of the Australian-Japanese artificial womb project's senior researchers.

The changing threshold can result in situations where lots of people invested in the decision disagree. "Those can be hard decisions, but they are case-by-case decisions that families make or parents make with the key providers to determine when to proceed and when to let the infant die. Usually, it's a shared decision where the parents have the final say," says Johnston. But this isn't always the case.

On May 9th 2016, a boy named Alfie Evans was born in Liverpool, UK. Suffering seizures a few months after his birth, Alfie was diagnosed with an unknown neurodegenerative disorder and soon went into a semi-vegetative state, which lasted for more than a year. Alfie's medical team decided to withdraw his ventilation support, suggesting further treatment was unlawful and inhumane, but his parents wanted permission to fly him to a hospital in Rome and attempt to prolong his life there. In the end, the case went all the way up to the Supreme Court, which ruled that doctors could stop providing life support for Alfie, saying that the child required "peace, quiet and privacy." What happened to little Alfie raised huge publicity in the UK and pointedly highlighted the dilemma of whether parents or doctors should have the final say in the fate of a terminally-ill child in life-support treatment.

"In a few years from now, women who cannot get pregnant because of uterine infertility will be able to have a fully functional uterus made from their own tissue."

Alfie was born and, thus had legal rights, yet legal and ethical mayhem arose out of his case. When it comes to gestatelings, the scenarios will be even more complicated, says Romanis. "I think there's a really big question about who has parental rights and who doesn't," she says. "The assisted reproductive technology (ART) law in the U.K. hasn't been updated since 2008....It certainly needs an update when you think about all the things we have done since [then]."

This June, for instance, scientists from the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina published research showing that they could take a small sample of tissue from a rabbit's uterus and create a bioengineered uterus, which then supported both fertilization and normal pregnancy like a natural uterus does.

"In [a number of] years from now, women who cannot get pregnant because of uterine infertility will be able to have a fully functional uterus made from their own tissue," says Dr. Anthony Atala, the Institute's director and a pioneer in regenerative medicine. These bioengineered uteri will eventually be covered by insurance, Atala expects. But when it comes to artificial wombs that externally gestate premature infants, will all mothers have equal access?

Medical reports have already shown racial and ethnic disparities in infertility treatments and access to assisted reproductive technologies. Costs on average total $12,400 per cycle of treatment and may require several cycles to achieve a live birth. "There's no indication that artificial wombs would be treated any differently. That's what we see with almost every expensive new medical technology," says Johnston. In a much more dystopian future, there is even a possibility that inequity in healthcare might create disturbing chasms in how women of various class levels bear children. Romanis asks us to picture the following scenario:

We live in a world where artificial wombs have become mainstream. Most women choose to end their pregnancies early and transfer their gestatelings to the care of machines. After a while, insurers deem full-term pregnancy and childbirth a risky non-necessity, and are lobbying to stop covering them altogether. Wealthy white women continue opting out of their third trimesters (at a high cost), since natural pregnancy has become a substandard route for poorer women. Those women are strongly judged for any behaviors that could risk their fetus's health, in contrast with the machine's controlled environment. "Why are you having a coffee during your pregnancy?" critics might ask. "Why are you having a glass of red wine? If you can't be perfect, why don't you have it the artificial way?"

Problem is, even if they want to, they won't be able to afford it.

In a more sanguine version, however, the artificial wombs are only used in cases of prematurity as a life-saving medical intervention rather than as a lifestyle accommodation. The 15 million babies who are born prematurely each year and may face serious respiratory, cardiovascular, visual and hearing problems, as well as learning disabilities, instead continue their normal development in artificial wombs. After lots of deliberation, insurers agree to bear the cost of external wombs because they are cheaper than a lifetime of medical care for a disabled or diseased person. This enables racial and ethnic minority women, who make up the majority of women giving premature birth, to access the technology.

Even extremely premature babies, those babies (far) below the threshold of 28 weeks of gestation, half of which die, could now discover this thing called life. In this scenario, as the Australian researcher Kemp says, we are simply giving a good shot at healthy, long-term survival to those who were unfortunate enough to start too soon.

Implantable sensors and other surveillance technologies offer tremendous health benefits -- and ethical challenges.

(© Unsplash and Microgen/Adobe)

The same way that it's harder to lose 100 pounds than it is to not gain 100 pounds, it's easier to stop a disease before it happens than to treat an illness once it's developed.

In Morris' dream scenario "everyone will be implanted with a sensor" ("…the same way most people are vaccinated") and the sensor will alert people to go to the doctor if something is awry.

Bio-engineers working on the next generation of diagnostic tools say today's technology, such as colonoscopies or mammograms, are reactionary; that is, they tell a person they are sick often when it's too late to reverse course. Surveillance medicine — such as implanted sensors — will detect disease at its onset, in real time.

What Is Possible?

Ever since the Human Genome Project — which concluded in 2003 after mapping the DNA sequence of all 30,000 human genes — modern medicine has shifted to "personalized medicine." Also called, "precision health," 21st-century doctors can in some cases assess a person's risk for specific diseases from his or her DNA. The information enables women with a BRCA gene mutation, for example, to undergo more frequent screenings for breast cancer or to pro-actively choose to remove their breasts, as a "just in case" measure.

But your DNA is not always enough to determine your risk of illness. Not all genetic mutations are harmful, for example, and people can get sick without a genetic cause, such as with an infection. Hence the need for a more "real-time" way to monitor health.

Aaron Morris, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Michigan, wants doctors to be able to predict illness with pinpoint accuracy well before symptoms show up. Working in the lab of Dr. Lonnie Shea, the team is building "a tiny diagnostic lab" that can live under a person's skin and monitor for illness, 24/7. Currently being tested in mice, the Michigan team's porous biodegradable implant becomes part of the body as "cells move right in," says Morris, allowing engineered tissue to be biopsied and analyzed for diseases. The information collected by the sensors will enable doctors to predict disease flareups, such as for cancer relapses, so that therapies can begin well before a person comes out of remission. The technology will also measure the effectiveness of those therapies in real time.

In Morris' dream scenario "everyone will be implanted with a sensor" ("…the same way most people are vaccinated") and the sensor will alert people to go to the doctor if something is awry.

While it may be four or five decades before Morris' sensor becomes mainstream, "the age of surveillance medicine is here," says Jamie Metzl, a technology and healthcare futurist who penned Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity. "It will get more effective and sophisticated and less obtrusive over time," says Metzl.

Already, Google compiles public health data about disease hotspots by amalgamating individual searches for medical symptoms; pill technology can digitally track when and how much medication a patient takes; and, the Apple watch heart app can predict with 85-percent accuracy if an individual using the wrist device has Atrial Fibrulation (AFib) — a condition that causes stroke, blood clots and heart failure, and goes undiagnosed in 700,000 people each year in the U.S.

"We'll never be able to predict everything," says Metzl. "But we will always be able to predict and prevent more and more; that is the future of healthcare and medicine."

Morris believes that within ten years there will be surveillance tools that can predict if an individual has contracted the flu well before symptoms develop.

At City College of New York, Ryan Williams, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, has built an implantable nano-sensor that works with a florescent wand to scope out if cancer cells are growing at the implant site. "Instead of having the ovary or breast removed, the patient could just have this [surveillance] device that can say 'hey we're monitoring for this' in real-time… [to] measure whether the cancer is maybe coming back,' as opposed to having biopsy tests or undergoing treatments or invasive procedures."

Not all surveillance technologies that are being developed need to be implanted. At Case Western, Colin Drummond, PhD, MBA, a data scientist and assistant department chair of the Department of Biomedical Engineering, is building a "surroundable." He describes it as an Alexa-style surveillance system (he's named her Regina) that will "tell" the user, if a need arises for medication, how much to take and when.

Bioethical Red Flags

"Everyone should be extremely excited about our move toward what I call predictive and preventive health care and health," says Metzl. "We should also be worried about it. Because all of these technologies can be used well and they can [also] be abused." The concerns are many layered:

Discriminatory practices

For years now, bioethicists have expressed concerns about employee-sponsored wellness programs that encourage fitness while also tracking employee health data."Getting access to your health data can change the way your employer thinks about your employability," says Keisha Ray, assistant professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth). Such access can lead to discriminatory practices against employees that are less fit. "Surveillance medicine only heightens those risks," says Ray.

Who owns the data?

Surveillance medicine may help "democratize healthcare" which could be a good thing, says Anita Ho, an associate professor in bioethics at both the University of California, San Francisco and at the University of British Columbia. It would enable easier access by patients to their health data, delivered to smart phones, for example, rather than waiting for a call from the doctor. But, she also wonders who will own the data collected and if that owner has the right to share it or sell it. "A direct-to-consumer device is where the lines get a little blurry," says Ho. Currently, health data collected by Apple Watch is owned by Apple. "So we have to ask bigger ethical questions in terms of what consent should be required" by users.

Insurance coverage

"Consumers of these products deserve some sort of assurance that using a product that will predict future needs won't in any way jeopardize their ability to access care for those needs," says Hastings Center bioethicist Carolyn Neuhaus. She is urging lawmakers to begin tackling policy issues created by surveillance medicine, now, well ahead of the technology becoming mainstream, not unlike GINA, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 -- a federal law designed to prevent discrimination in health insurance on the basis of genetic information.

And, because not all Americans have insurance, Ho wants to know, who's going to pay for this technology and how much will it cost?

Trusting our guts

Some bioethicists are concerned that surveillance technology will reduce individuals to their "risk profiles," leaving health care systems to perceive them as nothing more than a "bundle of health and security risks." And further, in our quest to predict and prevent ailments, Neuhaus wonders if an over-reliance on data could damage the ability of future generations to trust their gut and tune into their own bodies?

It "sounds kind of hippy-dippy and feel-goodie," she admits. But in our culture of medicine where efficiency is highly valued, there's "a tendency to not value and appreciate what one feels inside of their own body … [because] it's easier to look at data than to listen to people's really messy stories of how they 'felt weird' the other day. It takes a lot less time to look at a sheet, to read out what the sensor implanted inside your body or planted around your house says."

Ho, too, worries about lost narratives. "For surveillance medicine to actually work we have to think about how we educate clinicians about the utility of these devices and how to how to interpret the data in the broader context of patients' lives."

Over-diagnosing

While one of the goals of surveillance medicine is to cut down on doctor visits, Ho wonders if the technology will have the opposite effect. "People may be going to the doctor more for things that actually are benign and are really not of concern yet," says Ho. She is also concerned that surveillance tools could make healthcare almost "recreational" and underscores the importance of making sure that the goals of surveillance medicine are met before the technology is unleashed.

"We can't just assume that any of these technologies are inherently technologies of liberation."

AI doesn't fix existing healthcare problems

"Knowing that you're going to have a fall or going to relapse or have a disease isn't all that helpful if you have no access to the follow-up care and you can't afford it and you can't afford the prescription medication that's going to ward off the onset," says Neuhaus. "It may still be worth knowing … but we can't fool ourselves into thinking that this technology is going to reshape medicine in America if we don't pay attention to … the infrastructure that we don't currently have."

Race-based medicine

How surveillances devices are tested before being approved for human use is a major concern for Ho. In recent years, alerts have been raised about the homogeneity of study group participants — too white and too male. Ho wonders if the devices will be able to "accurately predict the disease progression for people whose data has not been used in developing the technology?" COVID-19 has killed Black people at a rate 2.5 time greater than white people, for example, and new, virtual clinical research is focused on recruiting more people of color.

The Biggest Question

"We can't just assume that any of these technologies are inherently technologies of liberation," says Metzl.

Especially because we haven't yet asked the 64-thousand dollar question: Would patients even want to know?

Jenny Ahlstrom is an IT professional who was diagnosed at 43 with multiple myeloma, a blood cancer that typically attacks people in their late 60s and 70s and for which there is no cure. She believes that most people won't want to know about their declining health in real time. People like to live "optimistically in denial most of the time. If they don't have a problem, they don't want to really think they have a problem until they have [it]," especially when there is no cure. "Psychologically? That would be hard to know."

Ahlstrom says there's also the issue of trust, something she experienced first-hand when she launched her non-profit, HealthTree, a crowdsourcing tool to help myeloma patients "find their genetic twin" and learn what therapies may or may not work. "People want to share their story, not their data," says Ahlstrom. "We have been so conditioned as a nation to believe that our medical data is so valuable."

Metzl acknowledges that adoption of new technologies will be uneven. But he also believes that "over time, it will be abundantly clear that it's much, much cheaper to predict and prevent disease than it is to treat disease once it's already emerged."

Beyond cost, the tremendous potential of these technologies to help us live healthier and longer lives is a game-changer, he says, as long as we find ways "to ultimately navigate this terrain and put systems in place ... to minimize any potential harms."

Cari Shane
Cari Shane is a freelance journalist and corporate writer, skier, swimmer and Airbnb Superhost. Originally from Manhattan, Shane now lives carless in Washington, DC and writes for The Washington Post (newspaper and magazine), USA Today, OZY, Fodor’s, NextAve, and more.