Medical tourism fills hospital beds
By Marilyn Bowden
Miami's business and cultural links to other countries make it a natural place for foreigners to seek medical care as well, and local hospitals and other health-care facilities have long been cultivating medical tourism.
Baptist Health South Florida sees about 12,000 patients from more than 100 countries annually, says Mario Mendez, corporate vice president and chief medical officer of Baptist Health International.
About 70%, he says, come from the English- and Spanish-speaking countries of the Caribbean, Central America and the northern part of South America; there's also a rising market in the Middle East.
"We have a very strong educational presence in the different markets we are involved in, including in-country symposiums and providing access to medical education at our different hospitals here," Dr. Mendez said.
"We have a very robust observership program where physicians can come spend time here shadowing our specialists. That is probably one of the best ways to establish long-term relationships with the medical community."
In addition to educational outreach, including physician education, UHealth, the University of Miami Health System, maintains established relationships with embassies, said Natalie Geary, UHealth's chief patient experience officer.
"We have a primary focus on the Americas," she said. "We are the only academic medical center in Miami, so if a patient has something that requires cutting-edge care, this is where they come.
"Most have to do with cancer and cardiovascular disease."
Dr. Mendez said Baptist Health's Centers of Excellence in neurology as well as neurosurgical subspecialties draw patients from many countries.
"Orthopedics is very robust for us," he said, "because of the world-renowned physicians we have, particularly in sports medicine. We treat high-profile athletes from all over the world."
The Oncology Center of Excellence also brings in international patients, Dr. Mendez said; construction of a new cancer hub has been approved by the board, but no further details are available yet.
Baptist, he said, provides concierge services for international patients and family members traveling with them as necessary, though many already have second homes or family members in South Florida.
In addition to preferred rates at a number of area hotels, one- and two-bedroom furnished condos owned by Baptist are on offer for those on extended stay.
"We do everything from daily visits by our hospitality team to any type of necessities they may have," Dr. Mendez said, "such as access to fax services and computers for executives who need to stay in constant touch."
At UHealth, "we provide specialized concierge services to make sure the patient's experiences is seamless," Dr. Geary said, "that their visa and other paperwork are in place and their international insurance is in order.
"We can pick them up at the airport. We have a new VIP/international waiting area and whole international medical team with a waiting area, and reception areas to escort them through the whole process. We have patient advocates who speak a number of languages."
In emergencies, she said, the air transport service alerts emergency room personnel in advance. A heliport is planned at University of Miami Hospital in the near future.
The rise of medical tourism is largely a byproduct of a paradigm shift in the health insurance marketplace, Dr. Mendez said.
"When I started in the international arena in the mid-1980s," he said, "about 95%-97% of patients coming to the US seeking medical services were cash-paying. International health insurance was unknown or very expensive to purchase.
"International health plans that work outside the country they are purchased in have served as a catalyst to attract more patients to the US, because the middle class can now afford to travel here."
About three years ago, a number of health-care organizations, including Baptist Health and UHealth, banded together to brand Miami as a medical tourism destination. This marketing effort is overseen by the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau, which manages the website Miamihealthcare.org.
Other health-related organizations are also actively providing services to foreign nationals.
The Southern Florida Chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Patient Services Department supports international patients from Latin America and the Caribbean who also have a residence in the chapter's jurisdiction, said Community Outreach Manager Vanessa Vicente.
"We basically focus on blood cancer research," she said, "so we provide patients with these diagnoses with information on their disease and help them navigate the US health care system."
Ms. Vicente said she also works collaboratively with hospitals. For example, she has written letters of support to embassies of patients who live in Latin America but are being treated in the US, explaining the need for them to travel to the US for care.
About 18 months ago, she said, the society opened its first office in Puerto Rico.
"Puerto Rico serves a wide swath of the Caribbean," she said, "but when it comes to allogenic bone marrow transplants for adults, they have to come to the US."
The recently opened Riviera Health Resort in Coral Gables, a post-acute and rehabilitation facility whose amenities are modeled on luxury boutique hotels, markets its services to international patients as well as locals, said Chief Administrative Officer Dr. Ismael Roque-Velasco.
"The first 48 hours of post-surgical care are crucial," he said, "because potential complications generally arise during that time frame. Complications may arise from anesthesia reaction, infections, blood clots and numerous other potentially hazardous issues. That is why, depending on the magnitude of the procedure, physicians encourage continuous care."
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