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Traveling for Treatment: Medical Tourism on the Rise

By: Dave Cocchiarella

$40 billion at the very least, and possibly as high as $75 billion…

That is the estimated worldwide market for patients seeking medical services outside their region of residence for reasons of quality, cost, access or convenience; and it is known as medical tourism.

What does it take to get a slice of that pie?

Patients Beyond Borders markets itself as “The Most Trusted Resource in Medical Travel,” estimates the worldwide medical tourism market is growing at 15 to 25 percent a year.

This is not a new notion and something cities, states and countries have been asking for years. A 2014 report by the independent, nonprofit research institute Florida Tax Watch showed 375,000 U.S. residents a year spent more than $5.2 billion on medical services in Florida, and another 38,000 non-U.S. residents spent more than $580 million. Patients Beyond Borders markets itself as “The Most Trusted Resource in Medical Travel,” and estimates the worldwide medical tourism market is growing at 15 to 25 percent a year.

At 15 percent growth, $5.78 billion in 2014 grows to $6.61 billion in 2015, $7.6 billion in 2016 and $8.75 billion in 2017. Perhaps that is a little fuzzy math, but still, it is a ton of money.

How To Capture Market Share?

Certainly, medical tourism is thriving, but many travel brands remain uncertain regarding how to address and market it. High-end travel marketing typically focuses on luxury, amenities and activities.

Behind plastic surgery, the number one reason medical tourists go out of region for treatment is for dental procedures. Tough to sell attractions, resorts and fine dining on the back of gingivitis.

Still, the market mandates attention. Until recently, there has been no single organization or association with the mission of promoting Florida’s medical tourism assets. Largely, it is every doctor, clinic and hospital for himself.

That is not necessarily the case globally. Other countries have organized marketing their unique medical opportunities to attract international patients. The government of Turkey aggressively markets medical tourism, and in 2015, Turkish Airlines announced a 50 percent rebate on airfare for travelers visiting the country for medical reasons.

And why not pitch what we have? Medical travelers prove profitable for destinations, stay longer and, according to reports, spend five to six times more on average than a regular tourist.

Florida Tax Watch indicates the state’s thriving tourism industry will “provide the perfect playground for medical tourists and their families through high-quality medical offerings near an abundance of world-renowned destination activities ranging from Disney and Universal to sporting events and Florida’s hundreds of miles of beaches.”

We all know Central Florida is a global hospitality powerhouse, but the region is also known for its high quality and accessible doctors and hospitals. There is a long list of institutions, organizations and foundations providing and promoting healthcare. The big names like Arnold and Winnie Palmer Hospitals, Lake Nona, Orlando Health, Nemours and Florida Hospital roll easily off the tongue. Fortunately, these serious players see real potential in medical tourism.

Local Players Aware of Potential

Florida Hospital has been serving the Central Florida community for more than 100 years and systemwide sees more than one million patient visits per year. The American Hospital Association ranked Florida Hospital first in the country for number of inpatient admissions.

According to its website, Florida Hospital’s vision is to become a global leader “dedicated to improving lives not only in Central Florida, but also around the world.” Florida Hospital is committed to serving the health care needs of its patients with a holistic approach to heal the mind, body and spirit.

To achieve this in Florida, the hospital says it provides highly advanced, faith-based health care. To achieve this globally, it has developed an internal organization known as Destination Health.

Jay Voorhees is the director for Global Strategy at Florida Hospital and is responsible for building its Destination Health Experience. Even though Florida Hospital has not embarked on any aggressive marketing campaigns to attract medical tourists, Voorhees said the industry has demonstrated “huge potential.”

“We think from a market perspective, we have the opportunity to look at how we can build a synchronized, seamless system to support a single-entry point to establish relationships, gather required assets and information, and then provide a comprehensive plan of care from beginning to end,” said Voorhees. “We don’t focus on one single treatment; we do whatever the patient needs to ensure they are going to have a great experience and have a world-class episode of care.”

That “great experience” may mean the hospital arranging airport pick-up, accommodations or even working as a concierge service for family members who often accompany medical tourists.

“We don’t focus on one single treatment; we do whatever the patient needs to ensure they are going to have a great experience and have a world-class episode of care.” – Jay Voorhees

Health care superstars abound in Central Florida, but the region also has a deep bench to draw from when playing in the medical tourism arena. Groups like the Orlando Center for Regenerative Medicine (OCRM) are providing focused care for residents and visitors alike, as well as finding a way to make themselves known globally for ease of access and quality care.

Jason Pirozzolo, D.O., is the director of Sports Medicine and Trauma at the Orlando Center for Regenerative Medicine. He believes medical tourism is the practice of empowering patients by providing high-quality medical treatments in a destination conducive to relaxation and recuperation.

“The current health care environment rewards monopolistic hospital systems and insurance carriers by rationing care and limiting access to the best doctors,” he explained. “It’s a system that imposes countless layers of administrative hurdles to both patients and physicians in the process of providing care.”

Pirozzolo added that OCRM is helping patients regionally and internationally overcome those barriers to treatment by providing the highest quality care to its patients and building upon that with a unique network of strategic partnerships within the hospitality and concierge industries.

OCRM added more than 5,000 square feet of new, state-of-the-art medical treatment facilities to accommodate the growth in the medical tourism market, and Pirozzolo said he has seen a 200 percent increase in platelet-rich plasma treatment procedures — a particular favorite with medical tourism patients.

In addition to physicians and facilities, OCRM takes an experiential approach for its patients by fostering relationships with local destination planners, hotels, limousine and aviation companies to provide a customized itinerary matching the individual patient’s specifications.

So, the Central Florida region is good, probably better than most, but will the world beat a path to its doorstep? Not likely without some concerted outreach and consistent messaging.

A Unified Message is Key

OCRM utilizes a combination of governmental relations, destination marketers, travel agencies and conventional digital marketing to inform the nation and the rest of the world of its unique services. Pirozzolo said the organization is currently investigating outreach strategies that rely on developing relationships with foreign governments and the leadership within foreign health care systems.

Other organizations leveraging Florida’s preexisting hospitality infrastructure have taken similar steps. Florida Hospital acknowledges the need, and has taken a measured approach to medical tourism marketing depending on web inquiries, patient word of mouth and physician outreach.

Still, without something comprehensive and state-wide, medical messaging remains a sticky wicket.

Unlike consumer products, durable goods, fashion, food and cars, there is no industry playbook for marketing medical procedures around the world. Not quite “where no man has gone before,” but certainly a strange crossroad. Sutures and sunshine are not a combination Madison Avenue and the I-4 Corridor have molded into an effective marketing strategy.

Recognizing both the opportunity and the need to develop that very playbook for the state, the Florida Legislature took up the conversation in 2014. Funding was allocated for medical tourism, and Discover Florida Health was created to communicate the benefits of Florida as a medical destination and provide grants for destination promotion as well as medical meetings and training promotion.

These were the first steps in creating a true medical tourism destination marketing organization, and certainly a move in the right direction.

We have the doctors, institutions, expertise and facilities, and we also have the hospitality, natural surroundings and attractions. Growing Florida’s medical tourism market into the tens of billions, however, will take unique marketing by two widely divergent sectors into one unified message broadcast around the world.

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i4 Business

i4 Business magazine has become one of the most trusted voices for and about the Central Florida business community. Each month through our print and digital platforms, we provide access to meet, to learn from and to learn about some of the incredible entrepreneurs and business leaders who are shaping our region.

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