Medical tourism is on the rise

Patients willing to go the extra mile for health services

SABRINA FREY was running out of options when she reached out to a doctor she found through Facebook. Suffering from melanoma that had spread from her right eye to her liver, her life was on the line. Traveling to Tampa from Madison, Wisconsin, was a no-brainer.

“This year I’ve been down there seven times,” says the 43-year-old mother of four. “I’ve had five of the treatments, which have been very effective for me.” Frey plans to return to Moffitt Cancer Center in February to complete Percutaneous Hepatic Perfusion treatment under Dr. Jonathan Zager. “What lengths are you willing to go to try to save your life?” she asks. “I’m willing to go pretty far, as are a lot of people.”

She’d received radiation after being diagnosed with ocular melanoma at 39. When cancer spread to her liver, she had part of it removed. Then after cancer continued to grow, and monthly trips to Philadelphia for liver-direct immunotherapy weren’t working, she contacted Dr. Zager by email.

Dr. Zager, who was doing a PHP trial, told her, “‘I think I can help.’” Although she wasn’t eligible for the trial, the Food and Drug Administration authorized “compassionate use” treatment.

Medical tourism is big business, as patients are traveling to receive care for everything from cancer to cosmetic surgery, dentistry, and help with cardiovascular issues, orthopedics, reproductive care, and weight loss. The United States attracts about five percent of medical tourism worldwide, but accounts for about 25 percent of its revenues, says Josef Woodman, chief executive officer of Patients Beyond Borders, a Chapel, NC digital business disseminating consumer information about the industry.

A number of factors make for a healthcare destination, including government/private investment into healthcare infrastructure, a commitment to international accreditation and quality, cost savings, a tourism base, a reputation for excellence, state-of-the-art technology, and an internationally-trained staff, according to Patients Beyond Borders.

Medical practices need something that sets them apart. “In order to compete, you have to have some real resource commitment,” Woodman explains. Establishing a medical tourism practice can be extremely expensive, maybe $1 million per culture for advertising. At least partial payment is charged to patients upfront. “A lot of hospitals like the international patients because the margins are very high,” he observes.

In Florida, the Miami area is a well-established designation with a Latina base. It caters to the “Spanish speaking universe who want U.S. care and can afford it,” he says. Orlando is working to capitalize on its tourism base. And, in Tampa, Moffit is a “shining example” of medical tourism in the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Lakeland area, the former Lakeland resident says.

Martha Sanz, Moffit’s manager of International and Executive Referral Services, says many international patients come from the Caribbean, South America, or Canada. “We really have not marketed to international patients at this point,” she says. “They just come to us.”

On the international side, Moffitt attracts some 125 patients a month from overseas, up from a total of 65 patients in 2000. International patients make up one percent of their practice. “We’re able to provide our patients with very personalized attention. That’s also been a catalyst for good referrals,” she explains.

As the third largest cancer center in volume within the United States, their main goal is meeting domestic needs. “Advertising or marketing probably would not be in our interests right now.”

The Internet is spreading the reach of word-of-mouth referrals both inside and outside of the United States. Frey learned about Moffitt through a private Facebook group. Others may learn about medical organizations through a video or website.

A single video done by a cosmetic blogger is helping Dr. Chris Pittman’s Tampa Bay medical practice. “People are flying, driving from all over,” he says. “In the context of our interconnectedness, it’s a lot easier to find who the best or most experienced physicians are these days.”

Dr. Pittman, past president of the Hillsborough County Medical Association, treats veins, and he has made a specialty of treating women’s bulging hand veins. “What the Internet and YouTube have done has opened up medical tourism virtually worldwide,” he says.

A cancer survivor, he remembers checking out an award-winning blog to learn more when he was sick. “When you have a rare or life-threatening illness, I can guarantee you there is a site where these patients connect. That is the incredible power of the Internet.”

He has witnessed an increase in direct-to-patient marketing. And he says he expects more “super specialization” in healthcare. “The way medicine is going, it’s going to be a lot like Google Maps,” he says. “The veil on cost and value in healthcare is coming off pretty quickly.”

In Polk County, patients may leverage their connection with locals to receive care. “Polk County is not generally a location where people from outside the USA come for medical treatment,” says Polk County Medical Association President Sergio Seoane, a family medicine doctor. However, there are exceptions when family members live in Polk but have relatives and friends abroad. “It is the family members that make the initial contact with me, so I can see their family member (sometimes just a friend) from another country,” Dr. Seoane says. Some patients from “countries I have seen are the Dominican Republic, Argentina, and Columbia.” As a Federal Aviation Medical Examiner, he also occasionally sees pilots seeking Aviation Medical Certification from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Though medical tourism can boost business for those who have earned reputations as super-skilled practitioners, it can lure some patients away. As chief executive officer of the Clearwater-based Boyd Industries, a dental equipment designer and manufacturer, Adrian LaTrace can see evidence of that. “We’re continuing to grow internationally. American brands are oftentimes sought,” he says. “As medical tourism grows, and we see certain international markets grow, we are a benefactor of that.”

In the dental field, the Internet typically reaches other dentists who want training in specific techniques, he says. “Because of the proliferation of doctors that are able to do these types of procedures, you [as a patient] really don’t have to travel to another state,” he says. “For financial reasons, you may want to travel to another country.”

In addition to the United States, Costa Rica, India, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Turkey are top destinations for medical tourism, according to Patients Beyond Borders.

In the end, the thought of a Caribbean vacation, financed at least in part by cost savings on dental work, might be pretty enticing. “Many,” LaTrace says, “may want to be in Costa Rica at this moment.”


article by CHERYL ROGERS

Accessibility Toolbar