When it comes to our health and the health of our loved ones, we all strive to receive the best treatment possible. But what is “the best treatment possible” exactly? Some of us would say that it is the safest treatment above all else, while others would choose the most up-to-date technologies.
In pursuit of medical scientists’ latest developments and the most advanced treatment options, one can easily fall victim to a scam, especially when the life and health of those closest to you are at stake.
We’ve decided to get to the bottom of this problem and figure out how to choose a reliable private health care facility abroad and how not to fall victim to fraud. We spoke to Sergey Leonidovich Miheev, chief physician of Moscow branch office of Swiss Medica XXI.
Sergey Leonidovich, tell us what creates a need to turn to experimental methods of treatment in the first place?
“There are a number of diseases that just won’t respond to treatment or where conventional treatments are ineffective. For example, some treatments can only relieve the symptoms without actually improving a patient’s condition or stopping the progression of the pathologic process.
These diseases include Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, and many others. They significantly reduce the quality of a patient’s life and often lead to disability, inability to take care of oneself without assistance, loss of cognitive abilities (decline in mental function), etc.
Modern medicine can manage the symptoms and slow down the development of certain diseases, but unfortunately is not able to completely restore lost body functions yet. However, the progress does not stand still and new experimental treatment methods are constantly developed. Every experimental therapy has to pass clinical trials before it is approved.
As a rule, there are very strict eligibility criteria for such trials, but in theory, a patient can qualify to be a part of the program. If a trial participant is lucky, the new therapy method will help them and they will improve. The problem is that only the chosen few manage to get enrolled into the clinical trials program due to a rigorous selection process and a limited number of spots, while there are hundreds of thousands of patients in need of treatment.
For instance, according to the WHO there are 422 million people in the world suffering from diabetes today! And those are only the diagnosed cases. But how many others simply don’t know about their disease? There’s just not enough room for everybody. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for 60-70% of all dementia cases worldwide. The number of people suffering from diabetes has increased fourfold, from 108 million to 422 million from 1980. Around 2 to 2.5 million people in the world suffer from multiple sclerosis. Ten thousand new cases are diagnosed annually in the USA.
Parkinson’s disease is the second most common neurodegenerative disease in the world after Alzheimer’s. It affects 7 million people worldwide and approximately 1 million in the US. Here’s when private health care facilities, which offer experimental treatment methods, come into the picture. Good reliable clinics offer safe methods, which have already passed various clinical trials and have proven to be safe. Safety is the priority and the main aspect of any study. In the worst case scenario, the therapy doesn’t work, but it should never cause further harm, that’s for sure.”
How do you know that the experimental method is safe and won’t sabotage your health?
“You should know that nobody is fully aware of all the consequences experimental treatments might have. Therefore, these procedures have not yet become a part of the current standard of care, and have not yet advanced to the category of conventional medicine, included in formal recommendations. However, there are a number of criteria indicating the safety of the new method.
First of all, we have phase 1 and phase 2 of clinical research, which means that the studies were conducted on humans and the therapy safety was thoroughly assessed. We can talk about the safety of the new treatment method if it has successfully qualified for further trials. Next, pay attention to the duration of utilization of this or that treatment. If it is a completely new method, not even 6 months old yet, I’d advise you to stay away from it. On the other hand, if the treatment has been successfully implemented for 5-10 years or more, I don’t see a reason not to try it.
Try to find out who conducts the research of the experimental treatment: which clinics, which institutes, which countries. It often happens that the method has been successfully used for a couple of years in one region, and has not yet been approved in another. Let me give you an example. In 2011, South Korea released the first cell-based product for the treatment of the consequences of acute myocardial infarction. It was approved by the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety (MFDS) – Korean equivalent of the American FDA. This drug has been successfully used for a couple of years now in Korea, while the US is currently conducting phase 3 of the clinical research, which is expected to come to an end only in 2020.
Sometimes a therapy method is widely known and used to treat one particular disease while being under approval for the treatment of another. But we can already talk about its safety. And, obviously, we should keep in mind all the publications about the experimental methods. If a certain therapy is being currently researched, there will definitely be numerous publications on major platforms, such as Pubmed. The most up-to-date information is usually available in English.”
Alright, now that we’ve set the record straight about therapy and safety, tell us how does one choose a clinic to undergo experimental treatment?
“To be honest, I think it is easier to choose a clinic than to choose a treatment. First of all, make sure that the clinic is real and legitimate – every health care institution must have a Medical Practice License. The second important factor to take into consideration is what kind of promises they give you at that clinic.
Some people may be easily convinced that modern experimental treatment can cure any illness, restore youth, and prolong life. Unfortunately, there’s no magic pill capable of doing all that. That is why any trustworthy clinic will provide a patient with all the necessary information about the therapy and its possibilities, which in the end will be limited. The patient will also be fully informed about the potential risks, of course.
As I’ve previously mentioned, nobody knows all the consequences experimental treatments may entail. At Swiss Medica we have our own patients’ statistics and observe our patients for several years after the completion of the treatment. The information on how the treatment performs in the long term is very valuable to us. But still, there are always some risks. Another thing you’d want to pay attention to is what kind of patients the clinic takes for treatment.
Often, the most desperate people turn to experimental methods, knowing that this, as well, may be their last chance. The first thing doctors would do in a good clinic before starting any kind of treatment is analyzing the patient’s medical history and their current condition. Experimental therapy is not suitable for everyone, which means that a decent clinic will never admit anyone who they cannot help. It is crucial that the clinic is open to dialogue. Experimental therapy is quite expensive and it is obvious that a patient will want to make sure that the clinic is reliable. You need to ask questions, discuss possible treatments and procedures, and clarify all the details.
For example, our clinic offers our potential patients a Skype call, where they can view it for themselves before visiting. Make sure that the clinic is equipped with all the essential attributes, such as the intensive care unit, laboratory, and equipment for treatment. It’s always a good idea to ask for the previous patients’ contacts. More often than not, if a patient was satisfied with their stay, they will happily share their experience, knowing how hard it is to agree to experimental therapy. Our patients willingly present their personal treatment impressions, share experience on their social media and are ready to talk in person and answer questions.
And the last thing you want to take a good look at is a comprehensive contract with the clinic, which specifies all the potential risks and provides a Patient Informed Consent. Ideally, PIC should be a separate document, an annex to the contract. These documents confirm that you were informed about the possibilities and possible consequences of the treatment, as well as potential risks.”
How to choose a clinic
We’ve made a checklist to help you make sure a clinic is real and legitimate:
- The clinic has a Medical Practice License.
- Doctors discuss possible risks honestly and in detail.
- The clinic doesn’t take all the patients for treatment, doctors refuse those they cannot help.
- Open for dialogue: doctors are willing to answer your questions and provide necessary documents and will connect through video communication if needed.
- The clinic is willing to provide other patients’ contacts.
- The clinic offers a contract which specifies all the potential risks and includes a Patient Informed Consent.
Are there any red flags one should pay close attention to? Are there any obvious signs of a bad clinic?
“Oh yes, there is a number of warning signs. First of all, avoid clinics that have no medical practice license or refuse to provide it on demand. That alone should arouse suspicion. Don’t trust doctors who offer you some unknown treatment and promise a quick recovery. If something like this happens to you, make sure to ask as many questions as possible and try to find out how this ‘magic’ therapy works. Carefully study the topic on your own using the criteria we’ve discussed previously: records on research and publications, availability on the market, etc.
One of the most important indicators is payment. Scammers will try to get the money out of you as soon as possible. You may also be offered a discount for treatment if you agree to pay the entire amount of money immediately. I strongly suggest staying away from such institutions. However, don’t be alarmed if you have to make a small, say 20%, prepayment. This is routine practice. And, most importantly, if the clinic offers a highly technological multi-stage treatment, but doesn’t have its own building and employs one doctor who consults with you in a tiny office, stay away from it.”
Sergey Leonidovich, your clinic, Swiss Medica, has been using сell-based therapy for more than 10 years now. When do you think it will finally become the current standard of care and will move from the category of experimental to the category of conventional medicine?
“The potential of cellular therapy products is amazing: at Swiss Medica, we use cell-based products to treat a variety of diseases. But I can’t tell you for sure when this practice will become a part of conventional medicine In 2012, Spain conducted a study of the effectiveness of autologous mesenchymal stromal cells for the treatment of chronic osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis is one of the most common joint diseases, accompanied by severe pain and can often lead to physical disability. Standard of care for osteoarthritis is hyaluronic acid injections, which reduce the pain but aren’t able to restore the joint.
The study shows that injections of cell-based drugs can partially restore cartilage tissue, meaning not only did they alleviate a painful condition, but actually reversed the destructive pathology. This particular procedure has already been approved by the FDA, which means it will soon become a standard of treatment. I am sure that the list of illnesses, treatable with cell-based therapy, will gradually expand. It takes a very long time to develop new drugs and treatments, but I’m sure that the range of cellular procedures and drugs will grow eventually. However, I am not ready to make a prediction on when this will happen yet.”
When choosing a clinic, be sure to ask questions and put your safety first. Treatments like these can be life-saving, but they also come with risks. You have every right to ask questions and seek out answers.