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Czech Republic: Top Prague Medical Specialists Look Eastward To Improve Cash Flow

Prague, the Czech capital, was always considered a center for advanced medical practice and research in the days of the Soviet Union. Now, in the new era, specialists at one of Prague's top hospitals are looking to the East again, particularly to Central Asia, Russia, and Ukraine. The focus of their attention this time is fee-paying private patients. The reason for their interest is simple: They want their hospital to benefit from some of the money they believe the newly wealthy in those countries are willing to spend on good health care.

Prague, 14 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Prague's sprawling Central Military Hospital sits on a ridge above one of the city's well-to-do suburbs. Its reputation in Soviet times reached beyond the Czech border. Its medical expertise was considered to be rivaled in the Eastern bloc only by the National Institute in Budapest and the Bourdenko Institute in Moscow.

One of the specialties of the hospital is neurology and neurosurgery -- the research and treatment of organic diseases of the central nervous system. Now, in a market economy, the hospital's neurology department is looking toward raising extra funds to pay for this research. And it's looking east, especially to Central Asia, where it sees a big medical market in need of sophisticated medical services.

The mathematics are simple. Chief neurosurgeon Vladimir Benes says that, in the last five years, his department has moved into entirely new buildings, fitted with some of the best equipment in the world. Some 100 million Czech crowns (almost $3 million) has been spent on implements alone, such as surgical tools.

Benes explains: "We have something called a navigation system, which is extremely costly but extremely helpful, because it can reach any region within the brain without harming the structures, because you navigate your trajectory to the required region. We have all the diagnostic equipment necessary, [including] angiography and CD magnetic resonance. All these things are available around the clock."

The problem is, Czech medical insurance pays a maximum of about $300 per operation, even for complicated brain surgery. At the same time, the neurology department has to "hire" the operating theater from the hospital's central authorities for $150 an hour. Considering that a complicated operation can often last up to six hours, that means Benes's department is left with a hole in its budget. Hence, the interest in finding private patients in the East, from Riga, through Almaty, to Vladivostok.

Benes says relations are cordial between Prague's medical community and the people of the former Soviet Union, and he expects few barriers in dealing with Eastern patients: "Each doctor in this department, especially the older ones, speaks Russian, so it's no problem, in terms of translations, if need be. In the case of younger people who cannot speak Russian, [ways can be found]. Language-wise, I don't see any problems."

He says the hospital can help family members find hotel or pension accommodations nearby, and can also advise on subjects like local transport. Hospital accommodation can be in a private room or in a shared room with two to four other people.

As to the medical problems treatable by his department, the list runs from brain tumors to aneurysms (blood clots) to spinal ailments, as well as epilepsy and neuro-trauma.

Benes said he welcomes more contact with his colleagues in Central Asia so that he can inform them of the Military Hospital's readiness to receive patients. He has visited Kazakhstan several times but has never received an invitation to the other Central Asian states. He says: "There is no problem in contacting [colleagues] in the U.S.A. or England, or whatever, because it is easy to visit these countries, and we know each other well, because neurosurgery is a rather tight community, and there are not that many people [in it]. But the doctors in Central Asia do not travel very much, so we are not seeing each other at the [medical] congresses. We see Russian colleagues, and the Ukrainians -- they are attending -- so we know each other. But not the Central Asians. There are fewer of them."

Although Benes acknowledges the impetus for the program is that the foreign patients will be fee-paying, he points out that the treatments in Prague cost up to 80 percent less than similar treatments obtained in Germany, Scandinavia, or the United States.