April 6, 2014

Lawmakers seek to draw medical tourists to Florida

Forget Mickey Mouse. Florida lawmakers are hoping tourists will come to Florida for the doctors.

Florida lawmakers have a new vision for the tourism industry.

It’s not just Mickey Mouse and the beaches. Their goal is to make Florida an international destination for people seeking top-notch medical care.

Proposals in the Florida House and Senate seek to pump $5 million into efforts to promote the state’s healthcare industry to potential patients worldwide.

That is welcome news to healthcare providers like Broward Health, a public health system that already sees thousands of so-called medical tourists each year.

“It will only enhance the activities that have already been going on at our hospital, as well as others around the state,” said Abbe Bendell, vice president of Broward Health International.

Also standing to benefit: hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions near hospitals and clinics.

The measure has bipartisan support in the Legislature, and the backing of key leaders such as Senate President Don Gaetz.

But Renee-Marie Stephano, president of the Palm Beach County-based Medical Tourism Association, said it would take more than marketing dollars to make Florida a hot spot for medical tourism.

“Advertising is not enough,” Stephano said. “Some of those funds should be allocated to underlying service development, like helping [healthcare providers] understand the unique needs of international patients.”

Medical tourism isn’t a new concept for the Sunshine State.

“Medical tourism has existed in Florida since Ponce de Leon set out in search of the Fountain of Youth,” said state Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, who is sponsoring the bill with Rep. Patrick Rooney, R-West Palm Beach.

But as transportation and communications technologies have improved, more people are seeking medical care outside their immediate communities.

Experts say the global medical tourism market is valued at between $10 billion and $60 billion. The size of the industry in Florida is not clear.

One thing is certain: Healthcare providers in the Sunshine State are already drawing patients from other states and countries.

International patients, in particular, can be a boon. Many pay cash.

Miami-Dade County’s Jackson Health System serves an average of 2,500 international patients a year, said Sonia Valdez, marketing manager for the public hospital network’s international department.

Valdez said Jackson averages $78.3 million in gross charges each year from international payments, and that the hospital system spends about $2.1 million a year to run the program, which includes an exclusive 2,000-square-foot room within Jackson Memorial Hospital designed to look like an upscale airport lounge.

The facility provides international patients with Internet access, faxes, showers, waiting rooms and even a small clinical area for exams.

But large public hospitals are not the only facilities attracting medical tourists.

Forty percent of the patients at the Lung Institute, a private pulmonary practice in Tampa, come from outside Florida, said its director of operations, Lynne Flaherty.

“We see patients from Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia,” Flaherty said. “They come from Canada, the United Kingdom, the Philippines and South Africa, too.”

The Lung Institute helps patients book hotels and secure transportation.

“We’ll tell people to see a show at the Straz Center [for the Performing Arts in Tampa] or visit the Florida Aquarium so they can have the full experience,” Flaherty said.

Stephano, of the Medical Tourism Association, said Florida could easily become “an epicenter” for the industry.

“If you are looking outside of your borders for care, the destination itself does factor into the decision,” she said. “Most people travel with a family member or companion. It’s important to know you are going somewhere desirable. Florida is definitely desirable.”

Stephano said the Sunshine State already has attractions and accommodations that appeal to snowbirds, families and Latin American travelers.

The bills moving through the legislature (SB 1150/HB 1223) would require the state’s tourism marketing organization to increase its promotion of medical tourism. As part of the effort, Visit Florida would showcase select companies offering bundled healthcare packages and support services.

The legislative proposal would also establish a matching-grant program encouraging local and regional economic-development organizations to create targeted medical tourism marketing initiatives.

The price: $5 million from the state’s general revenue account in each of the next four years.

Brenda Escobar, who oversees international services for the Surgery Center at Doral, said she would welcome the infusion of funding. But for the medical tourism industry to be successful in Florida, Escobar said, healthcare practices statewide will also have to focus on language interpretation and other concierge services for international patients.

“They need to be culturally accepting and welcome these people,” she said.

Other legislative proposals would work in concert with the medical tourism bill. For example, both the House and Senate are considering a bill that would expand access to telemedicine. That would make it easier for medical tourists to receive follow-up care after they return home.

There are also proposals seek to inject millions of dollars into Florida’s cancer centers, which tend to be a big draw for international patients.

Bean said the medical tourism bill alone would prompt healthcare providers to offer “innovative and competitively priced service packages that include amenities from our state’s established tourism network of hotels, restaurants and attractions.”

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, believes the goal is within reach.

“I believe we have the best quality healthcare in the world,” Sobel said. “We’re going to let the world know it now.”

Miami Herald staff writer Daniel Chang contributed to this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at

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