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All Eyes in Colombia Focus on Medical Tourism Training

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There is more in a trip to Colombia than meets the eye.

When Philip Sheldon was told by his Toronto doctor that he was on a six-month waiting list for cataract surgery, the retired business executive didn't bat an eye. Instead, he had the foresight to call his son-in-law in Bogot to see what could be done.

Soon after he hung up the phone, Sheldon was on a plane to Colombia, where he joined thousands of patients who undergo medical tourism procedures from eye surgery and dentistry to fertility and reproductive treatment.

Rising healthcare costs are without boundaries across North America, said Renée-Marie Stephano, president of the Medical Tourism Association, which builds consumer awareness of international healthcare options through outreach efforts at workshops and conferences across the globe.

Actuarial analysis of the Canadian healthcare system reports that, at current growth rates, costs will reach such levels that provinces and territories will need to spend more of their budgets on healthcare raising costs, increasing wait times and ultimately pushing more Canadians to seek procedures elsewhere.

Northern Exposure

Stephano said Colombia is emerging as an attractive destination for both Canadians

and patients from the United States, who can take advantage of internationally recognized treatments in oncology, cardiology, neurology and orthopedics, among others.

Many of Colombia's leading doctors are trained in the United States and then return to their native country, where they are experts in their fields and recognized internationally, said Stephano, who recently returned from Medesalud 2013, an academic event focusing on the latest developments and research related to medical tourism in Colombia.

Conference Expands Markets

Stephano said during the conference, designed to establish and expand medical tourism markets in Latin America, particularly in Colombia, some 40 members of the Medellin Healthcare Cluster attended a full-day of training provided by the Medical Tourism Association, in which they were guided through best practices in the management of international patients.

At completion of training, all participants were given access to a Medical Tourism Association-provided educational platform, where, upon successful completion of an exam, they could continue to be educated and tested for designation as a Certified International Patient Specialist (CIPS).

With 50 medical facilities spread among a country of 44 million, Jonathan Edelheit, CEO of the Medical Tourism Association, said Colombia takes great pride in developing world-class professionals who work alongside dedicated teams.

Edelheit, President of the Healthcare Reform Center & Policy Institute and a presenter on the impact of healthcare reform in the United States and on medical tourism in Colombia, said CIPS holders gain a comprehensive understanding of:

  • International patient expectations
  • How to develop an international patient focused service package
  • Lead/patient management processes
  • International service staff and information technology requirements for seamless patient management
  • Procedure package pricing and bundling
  • Risk-management protocols including prescreening patients, complication insurance, waivers, and disclaimers
  • Key elements of an aftercare program and continuum of care strategy
  • Leveraging customer word-of-mouth advertising

Representatives of the Medical Tourism Association believe the sponsored education and training will pay dividends by increasing the number of patients — like Sheldon into hospitals in Colombia, 16 of which are already ranked among the top 40 in Latin America, according to the economic journal, America Economia.

Eyes Open

After making some phone calls to some of the best ophthalmologists in Bogot, Sheldon, despite comprehensive medical coverage in his native Canada, decided to speed up a procedure to correct a condition that was getting worse by the month.

Pressed with impaired vision and expiration of his driver's license, Sheldon invested in a plane ticket to Colombia, where he would spend days with family, recovering in an apartment in the capital. The decision and related expense more than paid for itself when compared to six months of anguish, waiting for the Canadian government to define the place and time of his surgery.

Sheldon's medical condition was not life-threatening and the surgery was performed in less than two hours. As a foreigner with limited language skills, his surgeon, who completed medical studies at Moorsfields, in London, spoke impeccable English.

Colombia is poised to attract and attend to needs of additional medical tourism patients. Just four hours from Atlanta and six from Toronto, Bogot, is a world-class city with great gastronomy, cultural exhibitions and historic attractions.

Hospitals, like Fundacin Santa Fe de Bogot, are accredited with the highest international standards. Specializing in cancer treatment, neurosciences and cardiovascular surgery, the Santa Fe recently signed a joint venture with John Hopkins Hospital, in which medical research can be shared on both continents. Colombia is also a pioneer in the development of pace makers, laparoscopic and transplant surgery.

Another of the country's top medical institutions, the FCI, Fundacin Cardioinfantil Children's Cardio Foundation is a global reference for cardiac surgery, electrophysiology and hemodynamic monitoring.

In Cali, the Valley of Lilli Foundation Hospital is the largest cardiac hospital in Colombia. In Medellin, the University Hospital of San Vicente de Pal has received international recognition for its use of digital and CT technology.

Medellen has also become a global reference for research into dementia and early on-set Alzheimer's due in part to valuable scientific work of Dr. Francisco Lopera, of the University of Antioquia.

Cluster Services

Adolfo Leon Moreno, director of cluster services in medicine and dentistry at the Medellin Health City, said patient volume has increased by 45 percent since 2010, and the development of a medical tourism program.

I continue to be impressed with the dedication of all of the cluster members to achieving professional and facility accreditation and their focus on patient safety and quality, he said. The underlying service development is at the crux of their strategy. I have no doubt that their continued efforts and support from the private sector ProExport Colombia — and the national government will continue to bring great recognition to Colombia for their excellent healthcare offerings.

While Mexico and Brazil compete for the medical tourism market, Stephano said Colombia has advantages which can't be measured in numbers and statistics.

The kindness and understanding of its health professionals can make a world of difference in the recovery of a patient from surgery, said Stephano, who toured facilities and invited healthcare professionals and related medical tourism interests to join more than 2,000 international delegates at the 6th World Medical Tourism and Global Healthcare Congress, sponsored by the Medical Tourism Association, Nov. 3-6, in Las Vegas.

Thanks for funding from private foundations, many of the country's hospitals are expanding with new wings and adding more private rooms to their existing ones. The expansion of specialized treatment is evident in Bogot and the Clinica de Prostata (Prostate Clinic) of the Sant Fe Foundation.

As Colombia gains attention as an international destination for specialized care, so too do the nation's physicians, like Manuel Elkin Patarroyo, for his vaccine against malaria, or Rodolfo Llins, a neuroscientist and chairman of the Department of Physiology & Neuroscience, at the NYU School of Medicine.

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