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International Services Welcomes the World

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

November 14, 2023 Posted in: Leadership

In the 1960s, the groundbreaking work of the late Dr. Denton Cooley in cardiovascular surgery and heart transplantation attracted the attention of the world to the Texas Medical Center and what would become Baylor St. Luke’s Medical Center. Patients from many parts of the world followed. To meet these patients’ unique needs, the hospital leaders established the BSLMC International Services program in 1991, one of the country’s oldest international programs. Decades later, the program’s role is more important than ever.

The International Services program serves patients from more than 85 countries, with many coming from as far away as Latin America, the Middle East and other regions to seek care at BSLMC. They’re drawn to the world-class Texas Heart® Institute and Dan L Duncan Comprehensive Cancer Center, as well as our neuroscience, gastroenterology, orthopedics and organ transplant services. Located in the diverse city of Houston, with internationally known physicians providing leading-edge treatments and conducting trailblazing research, BSLMC has built a global reputation as a premier medical destination.

Our reputation is what brings patients from abroad to BSLMC. Finding what they need while they’re here, however, can be challenging. The International Services team creates a positive experience for patients by bridging cultural and linguistic gaps and providing personal support and navigation through the health system.

Taking the Stress Out of Navigating an Unfamiliar System of Care 

Traveling to the U.S. for medical care can be stressful and overwhelming. For the International Services team, our job is to guide patients on their care journey from the moment they contact BSLMC until after they return home. We do this in a variety of ways, including:

  • Pre-travel assistance. We want to ensure patients’ journeys are worthwhile, which is why we help patients determine the most appropriate BSLMC specialist for them before they depart. Our team can schedule appointments for patients and arrange for them to get a second opinion.

  • Assistance with travel logistics. Traveling for medical care poses many logistical challenges, including accommodations and transportation. International Services can help arrange both. Once patients are in Houston, we provide directions and navigation around the city and our health system.

  • Cost estimates. We coordinate with patients’ insurance and can provide an estimated cost for medical services once the medical team identifies the most appropriate treatment.

  • Interpretation services for appointments. The International Services staff includes members fluent in Spanish, Arabic, French and Italian who can accompany patients to their appointments. For patients who need interpretation in languages our staff doesn’t cover, we work with a translation agency to provide virtual or in-person assistance in any language, including sign language.

  • Nurse navigation. Nurse navigators coordinate care between patients’ various physicians, assist with discharge and transfer to other medical facilities, help obtain medical equipment and prescriptions, and serve as a resource when patients have questions or need to obtain their records, whether during their time in Houston or after they leave.

  • Fulfillment of cultural needs. Our team works to ensure patients feel as comfortable as possible while they’re in Houston by attending to dietary, religious and cultural needs, such as ensuring Muslim patients have access to halal food and a Muslim prayer room. 

  • Assistance with scheduling follow-up appointments. For patients who need follow-up care after their initial treatment, our team works to schedule their appointments in an expedited fashion. We understand international patients typically don’t have the luxury of waiting a month or more for follow-up care. 

Benefits Beyond Borders 

The International Services program allows patients to focus on their health while they’re at BSLMC, rather than the logistics of care. Our team members serve as both navigators and advocates. They make the medical journey as easy as possible for patients who may be going through some of the most difficult times in their lives. Our team’s personal touch makes a world of difference, and it’s why we’re the recipients of letters (and referrals) from grateful patients across the globe. We embody Humankindness in every step of the way.

I attribute our success to three factors: the world-class medical care at BSLMC, the academic excellence that our healthcare professionals are known for, and our patient experience . Everyone at BSLMC, from the International Services team to our physicians and nurses, understands the needs of international patients and is happy to accommodate them. In short, all of us are willing to go the extra mile for these patients. This willingness and an unwavering commitment to clinical excellence, superior patient outcomes and outstanding patient experience are the ingredients any hospital or health system would need to maintain a successful international services program.

Looking to the Future 

As technology creates an ever more interconnected world, BSLMC and the International Services program are using it to enhance our care for patients in other countries. The COVID-19 pandemic was a catalyst. During the pandemic, when patients from abroad couldn’t travel to Houston, the need for BSLMC physicians to deliver remote second opinions (RSO) via telehealth surged. We worked with our CommonSpirit Health IT to develop a RSO application and connected with our partners in other countries to meet this demand. Our virtual RSO offerings continue to grow as the pandemic wanes.

Additionally, BSLMC and CommonSpirit Health are working to bring medical care to international patients in their home countries through partnerships with hospitals in Latin America, the Middle East and beyond. As these efforts continue, the International Services program will continue to be an invaluable resource for patients from around the world, each of whom is as unique as the culture they represent.

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