Some U.S. hospitals perform liver transplants on foreign nationals, while American patients are on long wait lists

Hospital entance
More than 14,000 Americans are waiting for liver transplants.
(Getty/monkeybusinessimages)

While many Americans face long waits for liver transplants, a new report reveals that some hospitals perform transplants on wealthy patients from overseas who fly to the U.S. for the procedure.

ProPublica and Fox 8 WVUE New Orleans analyzed hospitals' transplant records and found that certain hospitals performed transplants on foreign patients. 

NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital and Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center in Houston performed 31 liver transplants on foreign patients between 2013 and 2016, according to the article. Ochsner Medical Center performed 30 liver transplants on foreign nationals in that same window and Cleveland Clinic performed 21 such transplants.

Overall, 252 foreign patients received liver transplants in the U.S. between 2013 and 2016. The practice is controversial, as patients flying in from overseas for a transplant could not themselves be organ donors in the U.S., according to the article. 

“If you live in the United States, no matter what your [citizenship] status is, you could potentially be an organ donor if you get hit by a car or something happens to you,” Gabriel M. Danovitch, M.D., medical director of the kidney and pancreas transplant program at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, who previously led the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) international relations committee, told the publications. “But if your home is somewhere else, a long way away, there’s no way that you can be a donor or your family or your friends could be donors. And in some respects, when you then come to the United States, you are using up a valuable resource that is in great shortage here.”

Indeed, more than 14,000 Americans are on the liver transplant list, and the national median wait for a liver is 14 months. Though foreign nationals make up just 1% of liver transplant surgeries, the topic will be central to a meeting next month of the UNOS, which wants to allow major metropolitan areas greater access to organs from the surrounding areas to shorten wait times, according to the article.

RELATED: Ilinois providers to offer more transplant surgeries 

Meanwhile, medical tourism is growing as a corner of the market, both for patients traveling to the U.S. for care and for American patients seeking care overseas. The number of Americans seeking care abroad is expected to grow by 25% each year over the next decade. 

RELATED: How Lucile Packard became a leader in pediatric organ transplants 

Some regions are embracing the trend in hopes of boosting their bottom lines. Hospitals in San Diego recently joined forces with local officials to draw in medical tourists, and Tucson, Arizona, seeks to become a medical tourism "mecca," particularly for Mexican patients. 

Medical tourism does come with risks, however; for example, language barriers can cause miscommunication, with potentially dangerous consequences