Can Medical Tourism Provide A Shot In The Arm For Florida?

If Florida legislators agree, the Sunshine State will soon woo a new kind of tourist.

In a measure currently working its way through the state’s special legislative session, lawmakers are proposing to spend $5 million next year to entice tourists to think of Florida as a medical destination.

After years of losing millions of travelers to overseas markets, community tourism leaders and lawmakers are realizing the potential of marketing the state’s top-rated facilities and specialists against other global competitors. With the onset of the Affordable Care Act, “pay for performance” measures in place for health care facilities and more educated consumers who look at a variety of choices, both in state and out of state, healthcare consumer opinions are changing on their view of medical tourism.

According to a 2009 Deloitte’s Survey of Health Care Consumers, “8% of respondents said they sought health care services outside of their immediate community. Forty percent said they would travel outside of their immediate area for care if their physician recommended it or for a 50% cost savings. Only one in five expressed concern about leaving the community based on a referral or potential to save costs.”

“As the economy returns and we see an increase in large employers and health plans, employees are looking at global opportunities and the places they can go [for treatment]. They may not be down the street,” said Thad Seymour, who leads strategic planning and development for Lake Nona, home of Orlando’s Medical City complex. Seymour said he believes Florida can capitalize on this tourism trend by “targeting and promoting services to more sophisticated buyers. Our philosophy fundamentally is that medical tourism is about quality services at a comparable price.”

Florida isn’t the only state in the hunt for new tourism dollars; currently, Rhode Island legislators are looking into creating a domestic medical tourism program. West Virginia and Colorado legislators have tried similar proposals over the years, but neither proposal passed. If Florida’s measure passes, it will become the first of its kind in the nation with marketing support behind it.

It’s an important investment that tourism leaders and healthcare advocates agree is needed in Florida. “While medical tourism is not going to be on the scale of the 95 million tourists who visited Florida last year, it is an important niche and audience. When they do travel for medical reasons, they have a significant amount of money. The Sunshine State has a robust economy and some of the best medical facilities and doctors,” said Will Seccombe, president of Visit Florida.

Local economies in Tampa, Jacksonville and the South Florida area have been driving medical tourism in the community for years, but this new bill would create a platform of statewide support to give Florida a chance to compete with established medical communities like Rochester, Minn., home to the Mayo Clinic, and Cleveland and its Cleveland Clinic.

The bill outlines a two-part marketing approach spearheaded by two of the state’s top agencies. Enterprise Florida, the state’s public-private business recruitment organization, would be directed to work with the Department of Economic Opportunity to recruit life sciences companies (research, hospitals, biotech, etc), getting them to relocate to the state. 

Visit Florida, the state’s main tourism driver, would receive $3.5 million to set up a four-year plan to promote healthcare options, providers, services and specialties. The agency would also be directed to use $1.5 million in state funding to establish a matching grant program to support local and regional economic development organizations with medical tourism.

Supporters say recognition as one of the top-tier health care destinations in the country is long overdue for the state. “Florida is unique with its geographic location, culture of hospitality and medical services,” said Renee-Marie Stephano, president of the Florida Medical Tourism Association, which is supporting the current legislation.

But the initiative isn’t just aimed at drawing new patients. Stefano says it’s also about creating an overall positive patient experience, not just during the medical treatment and recovery but starting from the moment patients arrive in Florida, whether at the airport, the train station or by car. The focus shouldn’t be limited to patients but also include family members, caregivers and others who may travel to Florida to assist during and after a medical procedure.

Layne Smith, who represents Mayo Clinic Hospital in Jacksonville, says the hospital draws more than 20,000 people a year for services. Many of those patients are bringing advocates, family members or other guardians to help in the care and rehabilitation period. “Patients that come as medical tourists tend to be sicker, because they’re seeking answers,” Smith said in an interview with the News Service of Florida. “When a person comes as a medical tourist, a lot will bring their family as a support group with them. They’re staying for the long haul.”

That translates to millions in tourism dollars for the state economy, from hotel rooms to restaurants to car rentals. The key to wooing these new tourists to the area, says Stefano, is creating and supporting an environment of sustainability in Florida’s burgeoning hospitality industry. “Word of mouth is the best way to get patients here, but we need to ensure those words are good words. Every step of the process has to be great because expectations are different. It’s about creating a culture of engagement and an incredible experience for patients,” she said. 

She adds that in order for Florida to remain competitive, it is important to look at the overall strategy of enticing medical tourists, who have different needs from typical tourists. It’s not just enough to get patients and their families to choose Florida for medical treatments; it’s also about creating a solid hospitality partnership so the transfer of care from hospital to hotel is seamless.

“We want people to say, ‘they [the hospitality industry] understand me and my situation, and I can fully recover, emotionally and physically.’ The questions we need to ask are ‘how can we [hospitality services] have greater understanding of people dealing with their situation? Does the hotel understand patients and
have a different protocol and services to treat them during recovery?’”

While some hotels are equipped to handle patient needs, there is no standardization across the board. Stefano agrees additional training and education among hospitality services is needed to strengthen these resources. Boutique services are finding ways to capitalize on medical tourists who already choose Florida as their medical destination. Florida Medical Retreat in Sarasota is a member of the Medical Tourism Association and primarily caters to Canadians who travel to the Suncoast for surgery. By utilizing an extensive network of physicians, care facilities and support systems, staffers coordinate individual patient itineraries by targeting their specific needs, finding a specialist and the type of care needed. 

Because patients are traveling long distances, they usually bring a caregiver with them and can utilize the company’s concierge service to make arrangements for accommodations and other services before patients and caregivers arrive. “We make arrangements with hotels, condos, personal chefs, grocery delivery services, transportation and even entertainment options so patients don’t have to connect the dots and can focus on getting well,” said Dr. Debra Sandberg, CEO of Florida Medical Retreat.

Orlando’s Medical City is poised to become the next main medical tourism artery in Florida with a diverse cluster of medical and life sciences. The 650-acre complex near Orlando Airport has morphed into a $2 million medical campus, including a medical school, research and laboratories and two hospitals, including Nemours Children’s Hospital. The hospital has created an environment of courting world-class clinicians to care for patients, coupled with a network of resources specifically aimed at younger patients and their families during the recovery process. 

The surrounding area also includes ancillary support systems like rehabilitation centers, medical office space, housing, retail shops and restaurants. Plans are being discussed to add a third hospital.  “It used to be just location-driven, but now it’s also reputation-driven,” Medical City’s Seymour said. “As a region, it’s a great way to put us on the map.”   Source: Travel Weekly

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