May 26, 2017

Beaches, with a side of surgery: Jamaica's plan to recruit US docs for medical tourism

Daily Briefing

Jamaica is trying to boost its economy by pitching a new kind of medical tourism: Not only does the country want to attract American patients—it wants to attract American doctors to provide the procedures as well, Rebecca Robbins reports for STAT News.

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The country plans to draw American doctors—and their families—by offering discounts at resorts geared toward their interests. Konrad Kirlew, a Stanford Medicine-trained radiologist who is leading the effort, said the idea is that a visiting doctor "would probably come and operate for a couple days and go play golf, and hang out with his family for a couple days."

And Kirlew, along with four other partners, are investing in a new medical complex, GWest Centre, to offer visiting providers a facility where they can practice at the same standard as in the United States. The center already has launched a dialysis facility that caters to international patients who are staying at nearby resorts or on a cruise passing through the country, and in August, they break ground on a surgical suite and an eight-bed inpatient facility.

GWest plans to price procedures, such as knee replacements and nose jobs, at 25 to 40 percent below U.S. prices, Robbins reports. The Jamaican government thinks the discounts over the next decade could draw more than 100,000 medical tourists looking to recuperate in a tropical environment, drawing possibly $600 million in revenue.

Challenges ahead

However, the goal remains "quite a long shot," Robbins writes.

Analysts historically have overestimated Americans' appetite for medical tourism: Deloitte in 2008 projected that by this year, roughly 16 million Americans would travel abroad annually for medical care—but that hasn't happened.

Leigh Turner, a bioethicist at University of Minnesota who has studied medical tourism, said, "This is a business sector where there's a lot of marketing hype."

According to Robbins, Jamaica faces several challenges to turning its goal into a reality: The country is not known as a leader in health care, it lacks infrastructure to handle a surge of aging patients, and entrepreneurs face high duty fees to import medical equipment.

How D.C. hopes to become a medical tourism destination

Diane Edwards, president of Jamaica's economic development agency, acknowledged the accessibility challenges. She said her team is preparing legislation to expand duty-free imports of medical equipment. In addition, she wants to boost certification standards for facilities and personnel.

Further, it may be hard for Jamaica to convince busy doctors to travel to and from the country regularly, Robbins reports. To address that concern, Kirlew is eyeing providers who originally are from Jamaica or who have family there.

But that does not address another lingering concern: It's unlikely that providers' medical malpractice insurance covers overseas practice, Robbins reports.

Kirlew said he's aware of the challenges, and he suggested that, while the U.S.-focused portion of its business ramps up, the center could gain a foothold by drawing local patients.

Dainty Powell, a dialysis nurse and owner of GWest's dialysis center, said, "We want Jamaica to be the country where you don't have to hesitate" about visiting (Robbins, STAT News, 5/18).

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