On the evening of October 27th, 2009, two champions of the Philippine health and tourism industries addressed the crowd at the Medical Tourism Association’s 2nd Annual World Medical Tourism and Global Health Congress in Los Angeles, California. Joe Ledesma, President and CEO of St. Luke’s Medical Center in Manila, Philippines, and Cynthia Carrion, the Philippine Department of Tourism’s Undersecretary of Sports and Wellness, highlighted the assets of their archipelago nation and outlined their ambitious course of action.
The Philippines is the Heart of Asia,” Carrion said, quoting the country’s newest brand campaign aimed to capture the warmth and hospitality of the Filipino people. Carrion, a strong advocate of fitness and overall well-being in her native land, has received numerous international awards for her work in health and recreation.
Addressing the technical skill and capacity of the Philippines, Ledesma spoke to the international standards of Philippine health care. Since Ledesma joined St. Luke’s in 1981, the medical center has quadrupled in size and has become widely regarded as one of the top medical facilities in the nation. Ledesma was also at the helm when St. Luke’s became the first JCI accredited hospital in the Philippines.
The Asian Journal, the leading Filipino/Asian publication in Southern California, caught up with Ledesma and Carrion the morning after the speech. Joining Asian Journal editors Simeon and Ashley Silverio and the esteemed guests was Vivian Ho, the Managing Director for the Asia Pacific Region of the Medical Tourism Association. These health sector specialists discussed the state of Philippine medical tourism, where it is headed, and what kind of challenges it may encounter along the way.
A.Silverio ~ How would you describe medical tourism as it is now in the Philippines?
Ledesma ~ Medical travelers have been coming into the country for ages… Even without the medical tourism push, about 4% of our patients are international (on an inpatient basis). I would say that the potential for medical tourism is great. Despite the fact that being a developing economy, the local government does not have the resources like other developed countries like Singapore or Thailand… But in the Philippines, obviously our resources are very limited, so the government sector and the private sector have to really go hand in hand to push for medical tourism. It’s an uphill battle for us, I think, but it’s doable if we get our act together.
Carrion ~ On the government side, I think we’ve gone a long way and we’re going uphill… Now we have coordination with the government. We’re the only country that works well with the Department of Health. We with work the Department of Health, the Department of Tourism, and lead agencies [such as] the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of Foreign Affairs. And we’re really fixing the visas… [and working] with Philippine Airlines… The public sector is behind the private sector [to work as] a task force to reckon with.
A.Silvero ~ Is there a separate individual agency that will coordinate medical tourism efforts?
Carrion ~ We are putting up a bureau with all the agencies… [Health care] presidents will have a meeting every month and put up a road show for the country, because we have a vision and a mission… I know we can do it. We have all the qualities you need in the Philippines.
Ledesma ~ What we’re trying to push for is integrity in the process… We want integrity in terms of counting the numbers.
A.Silvero ~ What will the challenges be?
Ledesma ~ Well in terms of the American market, I think the challenge is that it is difficult to have medical care in the Philippines covered by American insurance. A lot of people have been trying to work for that, but so far, no one has been successful… [Also] the Philippines is not a litigious society. In St. Luke’s, for example, out of forty or fifty thousand cases a year, we only average four malpractice lawsuits. So, that is a concern for us in terms of if we have a deluge of American [patients is] what kind of litigation can we expect from a litigious country like the US…
A.Silvero ~ When do you think this problem of insurance will be solved? For me, that’s a very critical issue.
Carrion ~ They’re working on it. There’s a group now headed by Ross Perot, and they are really working on it. He’s also putting up a call center for nurses and he really, really believes in the Philippines… It’s a win-win situation for everyone, because everyone is going to save money…
A.Silvero ~ In the absence of health insurance, will the hospitals come out with rates perhaps of all the services that the retirees can use? Because [the prices in the US and in the Philippines] may end up being the same…
Ledesma ~ You can take Philippine health care, such as HMOs… and the rates are reasonable.
A.Silvero ~ In terms of future plans, where would you like to see medical tourism headed in the Philippines?
Carrion ~ Well, the mission statement is that the Philippines will be the destination hub by 2015. That’s our goal. We’re working together with the hospitals and the government agencies.
A.Silvero ~ How would you solve the problems with peace and order?
Ledesma ~ I always say that in terms of peace and order, Manila for example or Cebu is as safe as any major US city. It’s the same thing wherever you go. As long as you know what places to avoid, avoid Tondo for example, or L.A. you have to avoid downtown, it’s very safe.
A.Silvero ~ Where does this perception [of violence and unrest in the Philippines] come from?
Carrion ~ That was part of my presentation yesterday. It’s [coming from] the exaggerated media. I mean, I lived there all my life and I’ve never met an Abu Sayyaf! [Laughs] Ledesma ~ Sadly, the Filipino Americans themselves do not know this. I have friends who have not come home for twenty or thirty years… For us, Filipino residents, [violence] is really a non-issue.
A.Silvero ~ How do you think the Philippines stands up against other medical tourism destinations in Asia?
Carrion ~ I think we are at the level of a lot of destinations in Asia… Singapore is more expensive. India is chaotic… The Philippines is the best area… [The Philippines] is the combination of not only health, but of soul, body, and mind… Everything’s there.
Ledesma ~ Well, in terms of expertise, care and technology, the major hospitals in the Philippines can really compare with anybody in the world. If you listened to my speech yesterday, St. Luke’s, for example, is better equipped than 95% of the hospitals in the United States. We’re better equipped than most hospitals in Southeast Asia, including Singapore. And the other major hospitals like Makati Medical [and] Medical City are fast coming up [and] they are upgrading. In terms of expertise, technology, and very importantly results [and] clinical outcomes, we can compete with anyone. At least in the major cities, the infrastructure is there. It’s just a matter of attracting people to come…
Ashley Silverio has served as a Senior Reporter and Editor for the Asian Journal for over five years, specializing in lifestyle, health and travel writing. An avid traveler, she has contributed reports from the Philippines, China, Japan and Malaysia. Prior to joining the Asian Journal full-time, she lived in Spain and Japan. In 2008, she received the Ethnic Media Fellowship from the Association of Health Care Journalists. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in English and Spanish from the University of California, Berkeley and is fluent in Spanish and Japanese. The Asian Journal is a leading Southern California publication that has served the community for over twenty years.