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Medical Tourism: Match Made near Houston

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Prostate cancer exams can be the butt end of plenty of jokes, but they are no laughing matter to patients who have come as far away as Sweden for medical tourism treatments at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.

Now, Galveston officials want patients and their families, drawn by UTMB’s unique medical services, to enjoy a day at the beach as well. The city is hoping an influx of medical tourism is just what the doctor ordered to lure patients not only for the quality and affordable care outside their hometown or country but to the gulf beaches as well, where they will stay in hotels, dine in restaurants and boost the local economy.

Day at the Beach

UTMB is located in the shadow of Houston, which hosts some of the most renowned hospitals in the world, such as the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, that are closer to airports and already attract international patients. What's more, UTMB has the advantage of also being on an island that caters to tourists.

“If I had a choice to get a doctor in Wichita, Kansas, and to go to Galveston for the same price, where would I go?” said Jonathan Edelheit, CEO of the Medical Tourism Association, a nonprofit global organization that promotes the industry. “I’d rather be looking at the water.”

The Galveston Economic Development Partnership is eager to dip the city's toes in medical tourism opportunities. Kelly d Schaun, executive director of the park board, said an expert has been identified to assess the possibilities of a medical tourism alliance with UTMB.

David Vequist, director of the Center for Medical Tourism Research at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, told the Houston Chronicle that his initial assessment is that opportunities are good for the island to cash in on the burgeoning medical tourism business.

“UTMB is an asset,” said Vequist. “I think Galveston is smart to use it.”

Medical tourism enables patients in foreign countries to travel abroad for both inexpensive and better care that they often cannot find at home. Domestic medical tourism within national borders — began gathering momentum about two years ago when patients began searching the Internet for the best bargains, Edelheit said.

Boost to Economy

“This is going to be a very large emerging trend,” he said. Tapping into that trend could be a significant boost to the Galveston economy.

Edelheit said medical tourists typically spend five times as much as other tourists visiting a destination.

Medical Tourism Association estimates there are about 5 million international medical tourism patients each year worldwide. Edelheit said the number is growing by 20 percent to 30 percent annually.

Vequist suggested that “winter Texans,” also known as “snowbirds” because they seek medical needs in warm weather locations, offer the best opportunity for medical tourism in Galveston.

Edelheit said Galveston can refer to business models, in which companies produced cost savings by circumventing insurance companies and striking deals directly with hospitals. The package deals allow businesses, like Lowes, to fly employees to hospitals offering a set rate and guaranteeing top medical care. The building supply store has a contract with Cleveland Clinic in Ohio for employees needing heart surgery. Even when travel and lodging expenses are factored in, Lowe’s can save as much as $60,000 per surgery.

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