“Medical tourism has existed in Florida since Ponce De Leon set out in search of the fountain of youth,” said state Sen. Aaron Bean as he recently introduced a bill intended to highlight Florida as a healthcare destination.
Bean co-sponsored Senate Bill 1150 with Rep. Patrick Rooney. Although legislators failed to pass the bill itself, the Florida House of Representatives did pass its budget, which means $5 million has been earmarked for VISIT FLORIDA to promote the state as a destination for medical tourists.
VISIT FLORIDA is the sunshine state’s official tourism marketing arm, and the organization’s president and CEO, Will Seccombe, believes there are exciting times ahead.
“This (the new funding) allows Florida and the industry to move forward,” he said, explaining that $3.5 million of the funding is specifically allocated for promoting medical tourism. $1.5 million will go toward a grant program to help physicians, hospitals and medical groups promote themselves to out-of-state patients.
Although the marketing and education plans are still in their infancy, Seccombe believes his excitement is justified.
“We have an industry-wide conference call (to) determine how these investments will be best leveraged with the private sector to grow medical tourism,” he said.
Whether De Leon was indeed on a mission to “cure” his aging in 1513 is debatable. But, what is clear is that he, like many people today worldwide, was willing to leave his own country to do so.
Medical tourism is burgeoning, and the U.S. already ranks in the top 10 countries as a destination hotspot alongside the likes of Costa Rica, Mexico and Thailand. The motivation to venture beyond one’s own borders for medical purposes can vary; whether a patient is looking for life-saving procedures or elective cosmetic work, certain treatments may not be accessible or approved in certain countries. Others face a lack of insurance coverage or untimely availability.
Fortunately, the U.S. is home to recognized medical centers that attract patients from every corner of the world.
Marty Forbes, a semi-retired Canadian broadcaster who splits his time between the U.S. and Canada, contacted the world-renowned Mayo Clinic in 2012 to discuss treatment for his daughter’s progressing Graves’ disease.
“I sent the same email to the Mayo as I did to Alberta Health. Within twenty minutes, I got a personal phone call from the Mayo offering advice and assistance. The response from here (in Canada) took ten days. Rayanne needed attention from five different specialists, and I can safely say the Mayo was the most compassionate and timely,” he said.
Many believe the combination of Florida’s beaches and attractions, along with the extensive established tourism infrastructure, makes the growing selection of specialty physicians an exceedingly profitable addition to the state’s overall marketing package.
After all, millions of people already come to Florida’s shores to experience the weather and locations natives often take for granted.
In fact, 2013 tourism statistics smashed the previous year’s records: Florida had 94.7 million visitors in 2013. Tourism officials say the industry is responsible for employing one million people in the state, and according to Gov. Rick Scott, “every 85 visitors to Florida equals one job in our state.” You do the math.
But, is medical tourism set to become reality in Central Florida?
“Absolutely!” said John J. Sassano, M.D., an interventional pain management physician at Level 1 Pain Management in Gainesville. Sassano, along with neurosurgeon Dr. John Stevenson of the Orthopaedic Institute, hosted an international patient in June 2014. The two implanted a spinal cord stimulator into Dan MacDonald, a chronic pain patient who couldn’t gain access to the treatment in Canada. Dan and his wife, Carolyn, traveled to the Heart of Florida and stayed for three weeks as he underwent the procedure.
“With flights, hotel and rental car, we spent at least $7,000,” Carolyn estimated when asked what the couple invested in local businesses. “We ate in restaurants, bought groceries (and) took daytrips to St. Augustine and Cedar Key. And, when Dan felt better afterward, we spent a weekend in Clearwater.”
“Wait, there was Belk and DSW, too,” she added, as well as some “Gatorwear” for the entire family.
Medical tourism is quickly becoming a popular catchphrase, but the concept isn’t new to Sassano. While Director of Cardiovascular Transplant Anesthesia in the late 1980s at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre, Sassano says news of their successes with the then-new anti-rejection drug Cyclosporin started getting global coverage.
“Middle Eastern dignitaries were flying in on private jets, with families and entourages, renting out entire floors of hotels and hospitals. Their families vacationed while they recovered from transplants. They paid cash. And Florida is easier to market as a recovery destination than Pittsburgh.”
While primarily a vocation, medicine is still a business … ask any hospital CEO, clinic manager, or physician. And it’s no secret health care in the US is in rapid flux with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, with patients, insurance companies, and health care providers scrambling to adjust to this changing world.
“We’re all looking for out-of-the-box solutions, patients and doctors alike,” Sassano adds. “Challenges for insurance companies, people seeking insurance, and for us, have all cropped up. Marketing to, and attracting patients from, other locales has been an option we’ve looked at for some time.”
As VISIT FLORIDA’s Will Seccombe said, “We’re already positioning ourselves as the No. 1 travel destination in the world. This funding just allows us to extend and to really make a name for ourselves in medical tourism.”