A German spinal surgeon who visited New Zealand to catch up with a group of satisfied patients has been warned by the Ministry of Health that it is illegal for him to provide medical treatment here.
Dr Thomas Bierstedt dined in Auckland last week with a group of New Zealand patients on whom he performed disc replacement surgery in Düsseldorf, Germany.
While a number of New Zealand patients of the German surgeon praised their clinical outcomes, a complaint was made to the Ministry of Health about his presence in New Zealand.
Ministry of Health chief legal advisor Phil Knipe says there are strict rules around what foreign doctors can do while visiting New Zealand.
"In January, the Ministry of Health received a complaint from a New Zealand surgeon, about a group of German surgeons who were about to visit New Zealand," Knipe said.
"It's illegal for medical professionals to provide medical treatment or diagnose people while they are in New Zealand, unless they are registered and hold a current New Zealand Medical Licence."
Dr Bierstedt said he has performed around 20 surgeries on New Zealand patients. He told the Weekend Herald that the ministry's warning was simply a misunderstanding.
"We apologise for that. By no means do we want to cause any trouble, or do anything that would hurt the regulations here," Dr Bierstedt.
"Circulating internationally, attending conventions, you always want to meet cases, but it is never giving advice or treating them. We know the regulations. We wouldn't do that."
The Europe based Spine Connection company Dr Bierstedt was travelling with said "about 40 per cent of new patients reaching out to us are friends and colleagues from our previous patients".
At the Spine Connection Auckland dinner was 37-year-old Aucklander Taran Singh, who was operated on by Dr Bierstedt in August 2017.
He says the artificial disc replacement surgery "gave me my life back" after 20 years of crippling back pain.
Singh says his decision to get in touch with Dr Bierstedt came after he was given a six months' wait for a specialist's appointment after his condition rapidly deteriorated in January 2017.
"I was at the point of desperation, the worst pain of my life, so I started researching online," he said.
Singh said as soon as spoke to Dr Bierstedt on the phone via his Spine Connection company, he was given a totally accurate account of the pain he was experiencing.
"From the moment I landed in Germany I didn't have to raise a finger, everything was taken care of: hospital, diagnosis, surgery," Singh said. "I was walking pain free within 24-hours of my surgery."
Also present at the Auckland dinner was Kevin Philpott also said he is "pain free for the first time in 25 years" after his artificial disc replacement surgery at the hands of Dr Bierstedt in May 2018. The operation costs over $50,000.
However, Auckland-based orthopaedic surgeon Alastair Hadlow performed the first artificial disk replacement in New Zealand back in 2002, and says the surgery is readily available here.
"We haven't found them to be much of an advantage over a [spinal] fusion, for various reasons. I do them if people want," Hadlow said
"It's fairly complex but a disc replacement can end up as just a very expensive fusion, because they don't all move at the end of the day, and some people fuse up anyway.
"The Germans are pushing them because they don't seem to worry too much about the long-term effects on patients. They tend to be a little bit more cavalier in Europe to be honest."
Hadlow said he was aware Dr Bierstedt was in New Zealand recently.
"We're not protecting our patch or anything but he actually can't practice in NZ because he's not certified. If he's seeing patients that's practising, so it's totally illegal," Hadlow said.
Melbourne orthopedic surgeon John Cunningham also cast doubt on the intentions of doctors traveling to "drum up business" in foreign countries.
"What is in it for the surgeons?" Cunningham asked.
"There is clearly a financial reward, and it would not surprise me to find that every patient they see down here will be offered some sort of surgery.
"They will not tell people to lose weight and carry out exercises - they will take them straight to the operating theatre.
"Surely this alone should be an enormous red flag to any patient considering their treatment."
However, Dr Bierstedt said he "strongly opposed" the assertion that the German surgical standards were in any way more "careless" than Australasia.
"We have a very close relationship to our patients. All the follow up is done by us," Dr Bierstedt said.
"In Germany we are not a banana republic, and have a political system where everyone is insured and if the results were not the good health insurance would raise eyebrows.
"Or if the patients were not happy, their word is transparent nowadays, they have a strong voice that of course we are not lax."