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, 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.”
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.
“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.