Area hospitals find innovation, insight needed to capture market
By Catherine Lackner
Miami hospital administrators say they have learned they must be innovative and insightful to capture a major share of the lucrative South American market.
"Everyone wants the international business," said Nancy Valenzuela, executive director of international services at Mercy Hospital.
Referral patterns have changed in the past five years and the market has become intensely competitive, she said.
Noted US hospitals and medical schools are opening branches around the world - the Mayo Clinic in Mexico, the Texas Heart Institute in Aruba, the Cleveland Clinic in Cairo - reducing the need for wealthy patients to travel to the US for medical care.
American hospitals are branching out, Ms. Valenzuela said, because "the revenue abroad is much higher," given the managed care climate here and the tremendous constraints imposed on hospitals by the Balanced Budget Act of 1997.
"Hospitals are desperate to find other sources of revenue, but there's no quick fix," she said. "International programs are extremely complex and, unless these hospital understand them, there are only going to be a handful of the 40 programs that exist today that are going to be in the game two or three years from now."
Further complicating the picture, Ms. Valenzuela said, "there's a whole new generation of physicians who have been trained here and who have gone back to their home countries to practice."
Trained in the latest techniques, she said, "they do not feel they need to be referring patients abroad like they used to."
As doctors have changed, so have the patients.
"You now have a different type of climate - the patient is more informed via the Internet and technology. They do research online and don't automatically go where their doctors want to send them."
"So you've got to get very innovative and adopt a more consumer-oriented approach while still being sensitive to the local physicians. You don't want them to feel threatened."
Mercy has recently restructured and revamped its international program "as a consequence to competition in international arena," she said. "In January we inaugurated a brand new international patient center. It's centralized and streamlined, from admitting to insurance to cashiering."
Part of the new facility is private family waiting rooms and a full business center with Internet accesses, dedicated telephone lines, laptop computers and fax machines.
"Really, anything that they need to have, we've provided."
The hospital offers full concierge services "so if they need help with airlines, hotels or anything else, it's coordinated," Ms. Valenzuela said.
Global pricing, special packages and direct-to-consumer marketing have all added to the success of Mercy's program, she said. "This is a very demanding clientele and a lot of cultural sensitivity is needed. We think we have a program that provides all that. We have a very specialized knowledge of the market we serve."
Baptist Health Systems of South Florida, said Victoria Gomez, manager of Internal Business Development, has "grown 30% every year in volume and we're continuing to grow at record speed. This is due to the level of personal service we offer."
International services offered at Baptist Hospital of Miami and South Miami Hospital include travel arrangements, transportation to and from the airport, discounted rates at local hotels, advice on leisure activities, air and ground ambulance service as needed, and the services of a personal representative - a multi-lingual liaison assigned to the case from the first telephone contact. It's our goal to deliver seamless, personalized care," Ms. Gomez said.
With 33 employees, "we have really invested in the manpower and definitely think it's paying off. We get a lot of repeat business, word of mouth - that type of referral." Satisfaction scores range in the 98th percentile on follow-up opinion surveys, she said.
"We can say with a lot of confidence that we really are seeing a very satisfied clientele. Everyone says they have an international program, but I think what distinguishes us is the size of our program and our investment in it."
The program, marketed to primary care doctors and medical societies in Latin America, as well as directly to consumers, has met with widespread acceptance, she said.
"We don't market things that are being performed in the target country, but the hi-tech things that aren't available there," Ms. Gomez said. "We work in tandem with the medical communities - our goal is not to compete with the doctors but to work with them and offer a service."
"We've had a large international patient population for years," said Amy Perry, vice president of business development at Mount Sinai Medical Center. But, she said, it wasn't until 1996 that the program was formalized, with a full-time marketing director.
"We have two associates who help us with package pricing and help with providing the excellent services this population has come to expect."
Because Mount Sinai is a teaching hospital, Ms. Perry said, it enjoys a unique position within the physician community.
"We have a large teaching program - 170 residents and fellows come through each year. And many of those are international medical graduates. Every year we're sending large numbers of physicians back to their communities."
Foreign doctors who trained at Mount Sinai "are our No. 1 base for international referrals," Ms. Perry said. "They feel comfortable and excited to send their patients back to their alma mater."
To maintain ties with the foreign medical community, Mount Sinai personnel frequently conduct medical seminars in Latin America.
"It's all about sharing information, not about the US doctor showing them how it's done," she said. "The participants really grow in medical knowledge together."
In addition, foreign physicians may visit the hospital for two-week "mini residencies" during which they can observe doctors in any of 22 specialties, or for the Pan American Seminar, annually taught in Spanish.
"Each year," Ms. Perry said, "there's a variety of speakers. The physicians are so excited, so open to learning and growing together. Our guys are learning just as much from them as they are from us. It's a true sharing of knowledge that excites everyone and keeps the spark in the international program."
Ms. Perry predicts long-term success for the outreach program "because this isn't a marketing fad - we don't have a tag line, but a long-term relationship with the doctors. It's a solid relationship built on education and service - no fluff."
As in all such programs, there is a direct-to-consumer-marketing component.
"The second most important relationship we try to develop is with the patients," Ms. Perry said.
Access to a dedicated telephone line, global package pricing, escorts to appointments while in the hospital and a concierge service all contribute to consumer satisfaction.
"It's scary enough to have to have a medical procedure so far removed from your family and your home," she said. "We try to over-compensate by providing a sense of comfort and security, letting them know we're there for them. It all works together."