Medical Tourism Magazine Interviews Dr. Hassoun and Dr. Desai Around Cedars-Sinai’s International Patient Services

An international patient seeing a Cedars-Sinai physician.

An Interview with Dr. Heitham Hassoun, Cedars-Sinai's Vice President and Medical Director for International Health, and Dr. Shoma Desai, Director of International Patient Services

The Medical Tourism Magazine (MTM) had the privilege to sit down and get some insights from Dr. Heitham Hassoun, vice president and medical director of International Health at Cedars-Sinai, and Dr. Shoma Desai, director of International Patient Services. They shared their thoughts and insights into what a post-pandemic world holds for medical tourism, what makes Cedars-Sinai unique and how the Global Healthcare Accreditation for Medical Travel Services has assisted the organization in building patient trust.

Tell us a little about yourself personally?

Dr. Heitham Hassoun

Dr. Heitham Hassoun

Dr. Heitham Hassoun: I’m an American, an academic vascular surgeon and a hospital executive. To really understand who I am, you’d want to know that I am Lebanese, from a hardworking immigrant family, an athlete who still loves sports more than anything and an Aramco brat (Google it).

How did you begin working in the area of global patient services?

HH: I was a junior faculty member at Johns Hopkins caring for international patients. The international program is quite robust, and an opportunity opened up in Abu Dhabi to be the chief of surgery at our first managed hospital in Al Ain-Tawam. I’ve been passionate about global health ever since, both from the patient care perspective and from how global collaboration and knowledge transfer can serve those patients.

I returned to my faculty position at Johns Hopkins and then took another position at Houston Methodist Hospital. I came full circle to be a global medical director at Johns Hopkins for seven years, and then in 2018, I joined Cedars-Sinai as vice president and medical director of International Health. 

"Cedars-Sinai has the strengths that come with being an academic medical center, but we also have the agility of an independent institution, which is an advantage in navigating the complexities of caring for international patients."

How long has Cedars-Sinai had a Global Patient Services Department, and what are the top treatments you specialize in for medical travelers?

HH: The program was started in 1999 by my predecessor, Dr. Spencer Koerner. Today, we care for patients from over 100 countries. Our top areas are heart and cancer, as well as neurological diseases, orthopaedics, gastrointestinal diseases, transplant surgery and women’s health.

What global markets do you receive patients from, and are there specific areas you are looking to expand?

HH: We are privileged to be a healthcare organization that sees patients from more than 100 countries. Topping the list are Mexico and Canada, and we’re also very fortunate to have strong ties with Gulf Cooperation Council countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait. In recent years, we’ve cared for a significant number of patients from China. We’re also strengthening our ties with Guam, Indonesia, South America, Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

What sets your organization apart and makes it so unique?

HH: Cedars-Sinai has the strengths that come with being an academic medical center, but we also have the agility of an independent institution, which is an advantage in navigating the complexities of caring for international patients. We are fortunate to be in Los Angeles, one of the most diverse cities in the world and a beautiful environment for health and wellness.

Cedars-Sinai has been part of the L.A. community for 120 years, so our relationships and resources are substantial. Our talent is incredible. We are one of only three hospitals that are above the national average in quality of outcomes for all the medical conditions that are measured. Cedars-Sinai also has been ranked nationally in 11 specialties and ranked #6 among a select group of 20 Honor Roll hospitals in U.S. News & World Report's "Best Hospitals 2021-22."

How do you see medical travel evolving over the next two years?

HH: The pandemic has driven a rapid adoption of remote healthcare technologies and workflows worldwide. As travel returns to normal, virtual visits will continue to facilitate remote second opinions and expanded access to healthcare. Those are key positives—we want international patients to benefit from our services wherever they live.

In emerging economies, private sector investment in healthcare will continue to grow, and patients who travel for care will have more options, which is great for the care seeker. At the same time, the sharing of information and knowledge will continue to increase, and so will the demand for transparency and improved understanding of outcomes. Those are trends we advocate and strive for.

Are you seeing pent-up demand from medical travelers for healthcare services as a result of the pandemic? Please explain.

HH: Definitely, yes. When public health restrictions started lifting in spring 2021, there was a surge in volume coupled with a significant increase in complexity and acuity of international patient cases.

What types of global partners are you looking for?

HH: We’re seeking top business entities that want to bring world-class care closer to home to give patients quality outcomes and the best experience possible. We want partners whose business components are designed in a way that supports quality care.

Your Global Healthcare Accreditation (GHA) survey was held in the midst of the pandemic. Why was it important for you to continue investing in your Global Patient Services program during such challenging times?

Dr. Shoma Desai

Dr. Shoma Desai

Dr. Shoma Desai: Our first GHA survey took place during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in November 2020. It was an extremely challenging time as our team had to stay abreast of scientific discoveries, public health and government restrictions both within the U.S. and abroad, and the ever-changing availability of healthcare services and resources. 

We continued to prioritize accreditation because our primary goal is to provide international patients with a high-quality medical journey. GHA provided an organized and thorough roadmap for optimizing the international patient experience.

Your organization has several accreditations. Why did Cedars-Sinai choose to get accredited by GHA?

SD: GHA reviews the entire international patient journey, from the first inquiry through completion of medical services and the return home. A focus on the whole patient throughout the care continuum is vital to the patient's experience and outcome. This includes a concerted effort to meet the patient's language, cultural and spiritual needs as well as ensuring smooth transitions of care. 

What value does GHA provide to your organization? What value or benefits does it provide to your medical travel patients?

SD: GHA helps us examine the various facets of our international patient services from a fresh perspective. By reviewing every step of the medical journey with experts in the field, we are able to identify opportunities for process improvement and build a stronger foundation for the comprehensive care of international patients.

To learn more about Cedars-Sinai's International Patient Services.