Exploring Medical Tourism In South Florida, Where Cutting-Edge Treatments Are Just Steps By The Beach
As a burgeoning market for medical tourism, South Florida is attracting national and international patients for cutting-edge treatments just steps from the beach. And it's only just beginning.
Long have the faithful flocked to South Florida for its beautiful beaches, delectable dining, stellar shopping and warm weather—a superfecta of stimuli that has made the lower portion of the peninsula a popular playground for sunseekers. The air temperature averages 82 degrees, with the ocean temperature a tepid 77.
While blue skies, green palms and the year-round opportunity to dive, fish, golf, kayak and surf have their appeal, so does another aspect of the tourism trade less obvious in nature but more lucrative in the long term. Medical tourism brought in $6 billion to the state in 2014, the latest year for which figures are available, generated by some 300,000 to 400,000 patients who travel for health care. The reasons for their journeys vary. Some come for cosmetic dentistry and plastic surgery, two abundant fields of discipline in the region. Others come for cardiovascular treatments and oncology services that might not be available where they live. One of the most common procedures attracting both out-of-state and overseas patients is orthopedics.
(Renee-Marie Stephano, president of the Medical Tourism Association in Palm Beach Gardens)
Renee-Marie Stephano, president of the Medical Tourism Association, a Palm Beach Gardens-based organization established to promote growth within the industry and serve as an information source for employers, insurers and patients, says South Florida could become an epicenter for medical tourism.
“Florida provides a great diversity,” Stephano says, referring to its endless cultural and environmental attractions and laid-back vibe. “Palm Beach and Broward are quieter and more residential than Miami, for example. It's easy to get around. … For patients to come, it makes a lot of sense.”
An accomplished author, editor and speaker on the topic of destination marketing, as well as one of the founders of the Medical Tourism Association, Stephano says her goal entails building a bridge between health care providers such as Jupiter Medical Center and Broward Health and their respective convention and visitor bureaus.
“Collaboration is key,” Stephano says. “Right now, every one of the health care providers is left to fend for themselves in creating business. It's not the hospitals' job to market the destination.”
A lot is at stake. Experts predict a fully fledged medical tourism industry will generate $100 billion globally each year, with the Sunshine State poised to take a significant share. Yet getting all parties to rally around the concept has proved a bit challenging.
“Our hospitals are competing with other hospitals in the world, but they see themselves competing with other hospitals in Palm Beach County or Broward County,” Stephano says. “That's not the case at all. We shouldn't lose an opportunity like this through being overly competitive.”
(The CyberKnife M6 at the Ella Milbank Foshay Cancer Center at Jupiter Medical Center is a $7 million machine that provides a noninvasive, pain-free option for those with inoperable tumors or those looking for an alternative to surgery.)
Jupiter Medical Center received a half-million-dollar helping hand from Visit Florida, the state's official tourism arm, to kick-start a medical tourism initiative called the Global Medicine Program. The grant, one of nine awarded to health care providers for the purpose of promoting themselves domestically and internationally, was part of a medical tourism pilot program funded by the Legislature. The money enabled the hospital to establish the Global Medicine Program as a permanent department, create a website tailored to the English-speaking Caribbean and hire an ambassador based in the Bahamas. It also covered the costs of digital and print advertising aimed at residents in the island chain and paid for brochures and other collateral materials explaining what the hospital offers.
“We discovered that there is a large amount of money coming into this country for medical tourism,” says Lynn Stockford, director of the program. “We realized that south of us in Miami there are some big organizations that have capitalized on this and have grown their program over the years, and we believe we can do the same thing. But navigating Jupiter is simpler.”
In its first year, the program focused on bringing cancer patients to the well-established Ella Milbank Foshay Cancer Center, which houses one of the few CyberKnife M6 radiosurgery systems in the United States. The $7 million machine provides a noninvasive, pain-free option for those with inoperable tumors or those looking for an alternative to surgery.
“We discovered that there is a large amount of money coming into this country for medical tourism.”
“We want to provide an experience for patients who are not able to access this level of technology and expertise and are willing and able to travel,” Stockford says.
The program includes concierge-style services that assist patients with everything from booking hotel rooms to making doctors' appointments to dealing with insurance companies.
“It's a lot of hand-holding,” Stockford says. “The patients that we have are just loving it. They're sending flowers and thank-you notes galore.”
This year, the Ella Milbank Foshay Cancer Center expects to treat 600 patients, as many as 20 percent of whom will come from the Bahamas and other places across the globe.
(Abbe Bendell, vice president of Broward Health International)
“We're committed to continue growing the program based on what we've been seeing,” Stockford says.
Anthony Addesa, the rock-star doctor responsible for getting Jupiter Medical Center the designation as a luminary site for the CyberKnife, trains physicians from all over the world on how to use it before the technology is brought online in their hospitals. Addesa also travels abroad to do the same thing; he flew to Argentina in February and will head to Chile in May.
“It was a natural fit to visit these other countries,” says the medical director of radiation oncology, who speaks multiple languages, including French, German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. “We'll probably end up treating patients in the area because of it, as a lot of people in these other countries have limited access to very highly specialized types of treatment. I think we're helping to move medical tourism forward, though offering specific care that can only be delivered at Jupiter Medical Center.”
Broward Health, which operates hospitals in Coral Springs, Imperial Point, Weston and Fort Lauderdale, as well as the Chris Evert Children's Hospital, has branded its medical-tourism initiative Broward Health International. The 4-year-old program has seen its annual patient base grow into the thousands. “We've had double-digit growth,” says Abbe Bendell, vice president of Broward Health International.
Patients—mostly from Central America and the northern part of South America—turn to Broward Health for the same reasons as their counterparts at Jupiter Medical Center.
“The international program is aimed at bringing people into South Florida who need care that is not available to them wherever they are, or who don't have specialists,” Bendell says. “They may not have cardiologists. They may not have neurosurgeons. They may not even have an MRI.”
The hospital engages in business-to-business and business-to-consumer marketing in an effort to capture a piece of Florida's $6 billion-per-year pie.
“We want to be seen as a very viable option for people who are interested in coming for care in South Florida, and we want to be seen as one of the leaders,” Bendell says. “We do know from some studies that were done that the health care tourists who come in spend more money not only for their care but for their stay. So from that perspective, I think it would support the entire tourism industry.”
(Dr. Anthony Addesa helped to secure Jupiter Medical Center as a designated site for the CyberKnife.)
The Florida Chamber Foundation, the state's business advisory service and advocacy organization, conducted those studies as part of the medical tourism pilot program. “A Strategic Look at Florida's Medical Tourism Opportunities” and “Discover Florida Health Feasibility Study” encompassed more than 50 hours of interviews with members of the Medical Tourism Taskforce, professionals in health care and hospitality and those attending a series of town-hall-style meetings—all to obtain advice and input. The studies also took into account current trends and developing issues related to medical tourism.
“We summarized for various audiences the direction that Florida can take,” says Tony Carvajal, the Florida Chamber Foundation's executive vice president. “We think this is growing globally, as well as within the United States and particularly in Florida.”
The state already is renowned for its hearty hospitality and now needs to build a reputation for health care, Carvajal says.
“If we can get people connecting those two ideas together— great health care, great hospitality—Florida should win in this game,” he says. “It's a fantastic opportunity for diversifying our economy and diversifying our health care industry.”
The studies show the state is well on its way to becoming a hub. According to the numbers, five percent of all patients receiving treatment in Florida do not live in the state. Of those, 3.5 percent live within the country, and 1.5 percent live outside it.
“What that's telling us is that people recognize us as a great destination,” Carvajal says. “We, who live here in Florida, benefit from that. Whatever is good for a medical tourist is good for a Floridian.”
Experts says that medical tourists spend more and stay longer than traditional tourists and often bring extended family members to support them during the recovery process. Those relatives eat in local restaurants, patronize neighborhood stores and treat themselves to some form of entertainment during the length of their visits.
“At the end of the day, what I'm really looking at are the people who made choices with their feet and their wallets,” Carvajal says. “Patients are coming here to get their hips replaced rather than at home.”
Mainstream medicine aside, patients also come to Florida to take advantage of holistic-wellness plans that aid in improving mental health and overcoming alcohol and drug addiction.
“The key is to let the rest of the world know it,” Carvajal says. “If we could harvest all of that into a strong state brand and bring our resources to bear, it could be such a powerful moment for Florida. Communities and regions can really focus on medical tourism and set themselves apart.
“Somebody's going to kind of have to put their hand and out and say, ‘Let's work together on this,'” he continues. “Yes, health care is a business, and there's competition, but you can increase the size of the pot that you're all participating in. We're trying to ensure Florida's future, and if we can start the conversation, great. We want to be an inspiration.”