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Medical Tourism Proving There's More to Florida than Disney, Sun, Beaches

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Move over Mickey Mouse. Here comes medical tourism.

If Florida lawmakers have their way, an already prosperous flow of vacation travelers who visit the Sunshine State for sandy beaches and Disney attractions will be further supplemented by international medical tourism patients seeking top-notch and affordable procedures and treatments at hospital destinations around the state.

A bill, SB1150, would set aside $3.5 million for a four-year marketing campaign aimed at promoting sun-and-surgery packages connected to specific healthcare providers in the state. Under the current version of the bill, which is gathering support in the Florida Senate, hospitals and other healthcare providers would submit proposals to be included in the promotional packages.

Partnerships of this type are already gaining momentum across the United States by dovetailing medical procedures with popular tourism sites beaches, historic landmarks, restaurants, retail shopping destinations that government officials and business groups say will attract international and domestic patients, pump money into local communities and generate jobs.

In Rhode Island, Rep. Joseph McNamara (D-19) is looking to put the Ocean State on the map as a destination that domestic medical tourism patients will access for not only beaches and the mansions of Newport, but because of its close proximity by car, plane, train or cruise ship from New York and Boston.

McNamara has introduced legislation in the General Assembly that, if approved, could open the door for domestic medical tourism by attracting a Florida healthcare provider to the Warwick, which, in turn, would energize development in the City Centre district of Warwick and create more than 75 jobs.

The idea of combining medical procedures with family vacations is certainly not new to Florida. The Greater Miami Convention and Tourism Bureau has partnered successfully with seven hospitals to offer medical excellence with a tropical flair. The initiative has attracted patients primarily from South and Central America.

Earlier this year, Nueterra Healthcare, a Kansas-based consulting and management firm and member of the Medical Tourism Association, announced a subsidiary of the company had purchased Metropolitan Hospital of Miami with the intent to attract more cash-paying international patients from nearby Latin America to one of its specialized surgical centers.

Several years ago, a coalition of healthcare providers to the north got into the act as well. Called, the website was designed to appeal largely to Canadians seeking surgeries, such as hip and knee replacements, that would register them to a waiting list for procedures in Sarasota County.

Steven Roskamp, a partner in the Sarasota Bay Club, a retirement community and home to a skilled nursing facility, told the Sarasota Herald Tribune that the website is still active. He said queries that come in are referred to a selected roster of local doctors, but the volume of medical tourism patients so far cannot justify a continued push.

We are no longer putting tremendous effort into that, said Roskamp. We definitely got some business, but I was putting $10 in for every dollar I got out.

Still, Roskamp believes the high quality of healthcare in Sarasota, combined with the regional tourism amenities, will eventually attract baby boomer retirees who need more healthcare interventions, and have time to combine them with extended vacations.

I think it will happen, said Roskamp. Everybody thinks it's a great idea, and the doctors and hospitals are interested in cash business. It works really well down in the Miami area. You've got to have the flow of people and the ease of transportation.

Quality is Job One

Renée-Marie Stephano, President of the Medical Tourism Association, said Florida's appealing climate, geographical location, and diverse and enticing vacation attractions are a bonus from which to attract international patients, but infrastructure, facilities and
highly trained healthcare professionals remain the most important consideration for medical tourism patients.

In the minds of world travelers, Florida is already a known commodity, said Stephano, who welcomed healthcare providers, local government officials and business leaders to the 7th World Tourism & Global Healthcare Congress, Sept. 20-24, in Washington, D.C., for an expanded discussion of potential U.S. markets. Stakeholders the hospital administrators, the physicians, the hospitality entities interested in strengthening Florida's position as a medical tourism destination need to identify niche areas of healthcare and promote those services offered to patients who need them most.

Florida has a home-field advantage given the reputations of its facilities, such as the Cleveland Clinic in Orlando and Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, which is near the home district of Senate Health Policy Chairman Aaron Bean (R-Fernandina Beach), the sponsor of SB 1150.

Other sites, like the Silverstein Institute, which specializes in hearing disorders, and the Dattoli Cancer Center, are state clinics with international patient rosters, Virginia Haley, president of Visit Sarasota County, told the Herald-Tribune.

In terms of inbound to Florida, strength of the doctors and the medical institutions seem to be what is key, she said. Every time someone does come down and has a certain procedure, it helps us. It's slow, but we are building the reputation of the doctors that are here because we have the population we do. For instance, we have some very good knee people in Sarasota County.

Surgical Pit Stop

In the heart of Disney country, Central Florida has hosted its share of travelers from across the globe. But, now patients from as far away as Australia and East Africa might be more apt to make a pit stop for healthcare at South Lake Hospital, which is quickly becoming a hot spot for medical tourism.

Dr. Sijo Parekattil, who operates the hospital's PUR Clinic with Dr. Jamin Brahahmbhatt, said the facility sees about 45 patients each week from around the world for urology and high-tech robotic surgeries. Together, the doctors have performed more than 1,000 of these procedures using da Vinci robotic techniques since the clinic opened in December of last year more than any other center in the world.

A lot of our patients that come in with infertility have had vasectomies, Dr. Brahmbhattt told Now, they're either new relationships or with partners, and they want to become dads again.

Lake County Commissioner Sean Parks, who toured the facility earlier this year and was not aware of the expertise that existed in his backyard, saw the benefits of medical tourism firsthand.

This is amazing, he said. I have visited numerous businesses all over Lake County and Florida, and did not know this technology and related medical expertise existed right here in Lake County.

Everybody WinsStephano said medical tourism is a healthy proposition for both incoming patients and the residents who call the local streets and amenities home. She noted that Canadian snowbirds, whom last year crossed the border to spend $22.3 billion in the United States, will continue to flock to Florida and warmer destinations as always. Coupled with the fact that medical tourism patients contribute more toward local economies than traditional tourists do, she said, the benefits may be discreet, yet profound.

Medical tourism is good business, said Stephano. When patients visit a region or state for medical care, they usually stay for two-to-three weeks with spouses or loved ones. While there, they contribute a tremendous amount of money to the local economy. Medical tourism is a significant lever for creating jobs and driving economic growth. The benefits extend far beyond the obvious — healthcare and hospitality industries — but include restaurants, retail shops, transportation and many other businesses.

Missouri knows about the effects, particularly in the St. Louis metropolitan area, where 12 percent of all hospital services were provided by non-residents in 2012, contributing more than $1.6 billion in medical tourism revenue to the state's overall economy, the Missouri Hospital Association reported. Overall, the state counted 83,836 domestic medical tourism inpatient visits and 849,626 out-of-state outpatient visits.

The Florida proposed legislation hopes to generate a similar boon, calling for matching grants to local economic development groups, which would then coordinate business to correspond with the needs of medical tourism patient needs.

Brand USA, a tourism marketing program created by Congress in 2010 to market the United States as a destination for international travel, reported 1 million more visitors crossed the nation's borders than last year. Foreign tourists from Canada, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom, Germany, Brazil and Australia often frequent U.S. destinations; particularly, New York, Las Vegas, Orlando, Miami and Los Angeles, Brand USA reported.

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