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Collaborating on lifesaving care across continents

July 03, 2024 Posted in: Leadership

By Tania Matar, System Vice President of International Health Services at CommonSpirit Health 


For decades, Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center has been a magnet for patients from around the world seeking high-level, specialized care that, in many cases, may not be available in their home country. For these patients—and our International Services program, which helps facilitate and guide them through their care journey—the COVID-19 pandemic presented unprecedented challenges.

When travel restrictions prevented patients from visiting Houston to seek care at BSLMC, CommonSpirit Health International, which oversees the International Services program, resolved to bring our physicians’ expertise to them. In 2022, we started the remote second opinion program, which allows BSLMC physicians in nearly every specialty and subspecialty to review patients’ medical records and imaging, consult with patients and their local treating physician, and offer a detailed written opinion and recommended plan of care, all without requiring patients to leave their home country.

Pandemic-era travel restrictions have lifted, and patients are once again free to travel to BSLMC for care if our physicians believe it to be the best course of action. That was the case for Francisco Laso, a mechanical engineer who developed a potentially life-threatening infection following sinus surgery in his native Ecuador. His story embodies the collaboration that makes the International Services program’s success possible. 

Timely Connections

One week after Francisco’s sinus surgery, a bacterial infection spread to his brain. Local physicians struggled to accurately diagnose the problem and determine a path forward. Francisco’s son, a pulmonologist, recognized the seriousness of the situation and contacted Dr. Nelson Maldonado, the BSLMC international medical ambassador in Ecuador.

The international medical ambassador acts as a liaison between the patient in their home country and the U.S.-based International Services team. In addition to Ecuador, BSLMC has international medical ambassadors in Peru and Mexico, and we plan to add more in other parts of the world.

Through the remote second opinion program, Dr. Maldonado enlisted the help of BSLMC neurosurgeon Dr. Ganesh Rao, who is also Chair of Neurosurgery at Baylor College of Medicine. After reviewing Francisco’s MRI, Dr. Rao realized he needed treatment as soon as possible and scheduled surgery at BSLMC for the following day. As Francisco flew to Houston overnight, the International Services team was laying the groundwork for a seamless experience.

Taking Care of the Details

From helping with the logistics of travel and arranging accommodations and transportation in Houston to attending to patients’ interpretive and cultural needs during their time at BSLMC, the International Services team ensures patients have the support and resources they need so they can focus on healing. This wouldn’t be possible without the support of BSLMC leaders and clinicians. Our team collaborates with every department and expert at the medical center to meet international patients’ unique needs.

In addition to facilitating Francisco’s remote second opinion with Dr. Rao, the International Services team assisted with verifying his insurance, arranged for a hotel room in Houston and coordinated his admission to the hospital as soon as he and his family arrived. Pleased he didn’t have to deal with copious paperwork, Francisco said, “I was really surprised with the agility with which the International Services team took care of me.”

The day after Francisco arrived at BSLMC, Dr. Rao performed an eight-hour craniotomy to remove a brain abscess. The mass could have proved fatal if it had grown and spread further into the brain and spinal fluid, according to Dr. Rao. Like the International Services effort that brought Francisco to BSLMC, the care he received was a model of collaboration involving not only specialists in the neurosciences, but also infectious diseases and intensive care.

Francisco recovered well. He went back to work six weeks after a complex, high-stakes surgery. Life returned to normal, with no ill effects from the abscess or operation. For Francisco, as for the hundreds of other patients we’ve helped through the remote second opinion program since it began, having the right expert review his case and receiving an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment plan made all the difference.

Just Getting Started

I’m proud that, when it comes to accessing lifesaving care, Francisco’s experience with the remote second opinion program and International Services is hardly unique. Our team has helped many other patients get the care they desperately needed, including a Mexican patient who, out of options and on life support while awaiting a lung transplant, was airlifted to BSLMC within 48 hours. They received a new lung—and a new lease on life.

We plan to expand the remote second opinion program to more countries, but we also recognize a tremendous need for it here at home. With care sites in nearly half of U.S. states, CommonSpirit Health includes many community hospitals that may not have access to the types of specialized programs available at BSLMC. The remote second opinion program is well-positioned to bridge the gap. This service is needed as much domestically as it is internationally.

In the coming years, I anticipate adding new offerings to the International Services program’s repertoire, such as remote tumor board review of international patients’ cases, ensuring patients receive the most appropriate imaging studies and reviewing patients’ pathology results.

We’ll enhance the ways we collaborate with in-country providers and assist patients where they live because not every patient needs to travel to the U.S. for care. In short, we’ll continue to ensure we deliver the personalized attention and expert care patients need to heal faster.

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