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Medical tourism done right

Eric Smith

Medical tourism done right

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Medical tourism. At first I thought it was just another way of promoting tourism in a very competitive market. But then I paid some attention as the stories about this issue suddenly started to pop up locally.
Bureaucratic bungling and lethargy on the part of some public officers seem to have cost Barbados millions of dollars in foreign direct investment, as well as the opportunity to earn foreign exchange and create jobs.
The truth is that medical tourism is not totally new to Barbados, as many medical practitioners, particularly those working with private hospitals, and a number of dentists, do cater to such patients without the official trappings.
Fortunately, Barbados already has a very good reputation in a niche of this lucrative market. All praise to the Barbados Fertility Centre in Christ Church. This seaside American-accredited facility has opened the doors for us. I must admit I never knew of its top-drawer reputation before visiting Colombia early last month. This South American country has moved into high gear promoting its medical tourism. This sector has many spin-offs – from direct health care and wellness to boutique hotels and spas to sophisticated air ambulance services to the skilled multilingual workforce.
But Colombia, like Costa Rica, Mexico and Brazil, has turned medical tourism into serious business in this hemisphere, with The Bahamas and Cayman Islands looking to muscle in on a lucrative sector. Americans in large numbers are seeking offshore medical care. The big determining factor is not only competitive pricing but consistent quality service.
Noted Colombian hand surgeon Dr Felipe Mesa spoke to the issue during a luncheon, noting that excellent service at all stages, from arrival to departure, and certainly while at the health facility, must be part of the experience. Josef Woodman, founder and CEO of Healthy Travel Media and author of the best-selling consumer guide Patients Beyond Borders, speaking the following day at the conference, said: “Service is a very important part of patient care. No one can beat this.”
Ten years ago, Colombia had a bad reputation because of the illegal drugs trade and the associated violence. Today it is a premier destination for medical tourism with patients from around the world seeking complex specialized services, including cardiovascular treatments, dentistry, orthopedics and oncology, in a safe environment.
The Colombians want to let the world know what’s available, so familiarization health trips are organized for journalists, medical health insurance officials and others in the field by the Proexport, the agency responsible for the commercial promotion of non-traditional exports, international tourism and foreign investment.
So when they told me to come and see, I honestly did not pay much attention to the schedule. By the time I looked it over on the first morning in Bogota, I realized I would be visiting more hospitals in three days that I had ever done. By the end of the tour I had been to eight health facilities and was in total amazement at what I had seen. I forgot the plantains and corns, which came in various forms at meal times, whether on the casual occasion or the upscale restaurant outing.
Health care delivery in this South American country is top-class, at least from what I saw. There were no unpleasant smells and the places were clean – on the wards, in the corridors and even in the emergency departments. The staff – administrators, nurses, marketing officials, the doctors – were inviting and friendly. I do not believe it was staged; it was too consistent.
They were all eager to tell you what their facility offered and why it was special. The latest technology was always being showcased. There was the gamma knife, a device used to treat brain tumours with a high dose of radiation therapy, as well as the cyber-knife robotic radio-surgery system, a non-invasive alternative to surgery for cancerous and non-cancerous tumours. There is also cosmetic surgery, concerning which patients can expect confidentially and privacy. They would not even say if any Barbadians had been there for a tummy tuck or functional mammoplasty.
To meet the growing demand of internationals patients, Colombia is building new hospitals and expanding others, but not forgetting its own. The country has a contributory health plan for citizens who can pay and a subsidized health plan for those who can’t. Some of the very spacious individual rooms on show come equipped with Wi-Fi, LED televisions, games and a range of high-end features and technology. Serious consideration is given to accompanying relatives as well as environmental issues.
Sanvicente Fundacion in Medellin is Colombia’s first green hospital. I feel that as Barbados considers another hospital, and indeed if there is just a major upgrade of the QEH, a few of the officials should go and see this place. In the flesh – not online. Seeing is believing and it’s amazing: great architecture, energy efficiency, medical staff time sensitive as to delivery of treatment, and a number of innovations. The first phase has 180 beds, 35 intensive and intermediate care centres, transplant and tissue centres and a high-capacity heliport. On completion, this hospital will be able to accommodate 500 patients in 12 specialized centres.
Colombia is hoping to grow its medical tourism sector by 20 to 30 per cent annually over the next five years and bring in much more than the US$150-$200 million it earned last year. It is aggressively targeting some of our neighbours, from Curacao, Aruba and St Maarten to Trinidad and Tobago.
It was as I was at the Jose Maria Cordoba airport that Friday morning waiting to return to Barbados that it dawned on me that I did not see many men with paunches and the middle-aged women generally had no jutting flesh under their chins or pronounced rolls around their bellies even as they wore tight clothing. I believe the cosmetic surgeons are working wonders. The health insurers can keep on rejecting the claims.
I plan to return to Colombia for a vacation. I want to see some more of the country, particularly Cartagena. Until I get there, I plan to walk on mornings and if that doesn’t flatten my stomach, I’m going to try something – and it won’t be as a result of any routine organized by fitness guru Aereal Johnson. Adios.