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Check up to thwart an early check out: the push for a culture of preventive medicine escapes most.

When most of us hear the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, we nod our head in agreement accepting the wisdom in those judicious words. Then we dig in to a plate of the tastiest and greasiest tacos, gulp down a glass of Jalisco's richest tequila and puff on the fat Cuban cigar we got for Christmas.

And when the sugar hits the fan and some vital organ decides it can't take anymore, we finally pledge ourselves to the healthy life, refinance our mortgage to pay for a life-saving operation and hobble through the rest of our days popping pills and being helped up the stairs.

But doctors are telling us it doesn't have to be like this, and more importantly they are making it easier to avoid this scenario. Specialists say that if caught early, most of the big killer and crippling diseases are curable by simple treatments that don't involve invasive operations.

If signs of diabetes or cancer are found in the very first stages, it can mean no major surgery, no amputations, no blindness, no severe symptoms and--most importantly--no untimely death.

The main problem health-conscious people have discovered is that regularly checking the whole body can be a full-time job. You have to go to the cardiologist, the urologist, the nutritionist, the x-ray specialist and others all in their offices scattered across the city or state. And each time, you have to start over telling each specialist your life story, painfully revealing all the bad habits you have accumulated over the years. Until now.


The communications revolution is changing all industries and the health sector is no exception. Doctors and computer experts in the United States and Europe have joined forces to create technology that is revolutionizing how we can look after our health.

After tens of millions of dollars of research they have come up with an impressive sounding series of acronyms: IHE, PACS, NIS, RIS, CIS and LIS.

More importantly, they have come up with sophisticated systems (described by these acronyms) that allow doctors anywhere in the world to work together and assess patients using common records, which they can all read, change and modify using voice-operated controls.

This means you can go to one location to take one set of tests and 50 different specialists can assess your entire body, produce a full report on your state of health and in doing so detect diseases early on.

The attitude of many living south of the Rio Bravo may be, "Great, that's only one flight away to the United States."


Every year, an estimated 500,000 people in Mexico go north of the border to seek medical care in places such as Los Angeles, Houston, and Miami, where some of the world's most advanced clinics are located.

However, Mexico's private hospitals are trying to win back the medical tourists by offering the same cutting-edge technology that can be found in the fat world. Three years ago, Mexico City became the home of the first clinic in Latin America with the new networking systems.

Clinica Lomas Altas boasts 86 specialists in one building all linked together using the IHE--Integrated Health Care Enterprise--and other systems. And if the Lomas Altas' army of nutritionists, dermatologists, gynecologists and neuro-physiologists need assistance they can get a little help from their friends in the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, which is also on the network.

"There is a market in Mexico for people who want the top quality health care backed by the best technology available, and we want to provide that for them," said Dr. Miguel Stoopen, one of the founding members of Lomas Altas. "You shouldn't need to take a plane to get top treatment."


However, while the technology to give comprehensive check-ups exists in Mexico, many people still prefer the "don't go near a doctor until there is a problem" approach.

"In Mexico, there is a tradition of waiting until your body has a major crisis and you need surgery," said Dr. Laura Jauregui Camargo, the head of preventive medicine at Lomas Altas. "The general assumption is you should go to a doctor when you are sick, not when you are healthy. But often the opposite is more effective."

Jauregui is working with other professionals to try to build the same culture of check-ups that exists in the United States.

"We have to convince people that it is better in the long run to get the check-up and catch diseases early. But this can be hard work," she said.

Part of the battle is with insurance companies. Almost no plans in Mexico will pay for regular check-ups, and Jauregui said insurers have not been very receptive to suggestions from doctors that they add check-ups to their health packages.

However, according to Jauregui, several Mexico City-based private companies have begun paying to get their employees regular revisions. "Some bosses know that it pays to have a healthy workforce," she said. "It is best to let the employee take a day off for a check-up than six months off for a major operation."


In comprehensive check-ups, like those given at the Lomas Altas, almost every angle of health is examined. Vital organs are x-rayed and hit with ultrasound. Urine and blood is sampled and given dozens of tests. Blood pressure, respiration, teeth and eyes are all thoroughly analyzed. So what exactly are the experts looking for?

Jauregui said it varies enormously with age. The chances of contracting diabetes and cancer--two of the biggest diseases Mexico--increase massively as one get older.

Therefore, doctors recommend annual check-ups for those over 50, while saying people from 40 to 50 need to get check-ups every two years and people under 40 need to get checkups just once every three years.

While young people may be less at risk from diabetes and cancer, they can still have a variety of ailments they are totally unaware of, said Jauregui. Ninety percent of all patients receiving check-ups at Lomas Altas are found to have some health complications.

In many cases the problems found are minor. For example, patients are found to have high levels of cholesterol that could become dangerous in the future and dietary changes are recommended. But there are also significant numbers of young patients diagnosed with more serious conditions, such as various types of hepatitis. "Hepatitis is a significant problem in Mexico and there are many carriers that are walking around totally oblivious that they are spreading the disease," said Juaregui.

An even more serious disease creeping around the young in Mexico is AIDS. Official statistics on AIDS show Mexico ranks 73rd in the world's HIV carriers-per-capita, six places after the United States.

However, analysts say many cases of AIDS are not known or reported and the problem may be a lot worse than government figures suggest. "There are many cases of HIV the government doesn't know about, especially in the barrios of Mexico City," said Juaregui.


Of course, the deciding factor as to whether one is going to have regular check-ups using the latest technology is often the size of one's budget.

Comprehensive examinations can cost between 800 and 1,500 dollars a shot, which can--if you are having revisions on a regular basis--add up to some hefty medical bills.

However, advocates of preventative medicine argue you save money in the long run.

"It is a lot cheaper to treat cancer in the very early stages than after it has developed," said Jauregui.

Businessmen should treat their body like capital, Jauregui said, and it is better to invest and look after capital than leave it to deteriorate. But she added the greatest benefits are to your health, a commodity that it is difficult to value.

"Your health has an immeasurable price," Jauregui said.

Ioan Grillo is a Mexico City-based freelance reporter.
COPYRIGHT 2003 American Chamber of Commerce of Mexico A.C.
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Author:Grillo, Ioan
Publication:Business Mexico
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:Aug 1, 2003
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