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Senior Care in Rosarito

An Rx From Ancient Times

Baja sees economic opportunity
in promoting health tourism

Kenn Morris, president of Crossborder Group, says more than $1.2 billion has been invested in Baja tourism since 2000.

Since the time of the ancient Romans, people have traveled between nations to receive medical services they could not find at home. In today’s global economy, with its lower travel costs, easy access to information, international medical students training at top universities and the availability of global accreditation organizations, health tourism is booming. The Joint Commission International (JCI), the U.S.-based accreditor of health care organizations, says medical tourism is a $40-billion-a-year industry.

Countries such as Singapore, India, Thailand and Turkey are leading the way, with their governments promoting the industry and encouraging the development of a first-class medical infrastructure. This outsourcing trend is driven by several factors. Among them are the increasing costs of medical services in the United States and Europe, the aging of the population, growing numbers of underinsured people, the comfort of international accreditation and the affiliations foreign hospitals have with institutions such as the Mayo Clinic or the Harvard School of Medicine.

For example, a University of Pennsylvania study projects the dollar value of India’s medical tourism market will grow from $500 million (200,000 patients; 5 percent from the United States) in 2006 to $2.5 billion (500,000 patients, 20 percent from the United States) in 2012. Why? Consider that a coronary bypass in India, at a JCI-accredited institution, costs about $6,500, less than one-tenth the cost in the United States. Of course, patients must travel 22 hours by plane to get there and stay over several days.

But what if patients only needed to drive 16 miles and could come back the same day? Say, from San Diego to Tijuana?

A recent study by Baja's State Tourism Department on health service providers in Baja California estimated that on average 45 percent of the clientele is from out of state, with 50 percent of those patients from the United States. In some instances, such as plastic surgery procedures in Rosarito, out-of-state customers represent 80 percent of the business.

When Californians head south for medical treatment, they prefer four services: ophthalmology, dentistry, cosmetic surgery and drugs. The same study shows more than 70 percent who visit their doctors in Baja California do so at least once a month, with an average expenditure of $190 per visit. More than 60 percent stay over at least one night and 95 percent travel with companions. Price is the main reason Californians come to Baja California for medical services, closely followed by personal recommendations and recognition of quality. The study estimates more than a million Californians visit Baja California annually to obtain some form of health services or products, spending a combined $900 million.

While price is an important factor, the level of activity is not based solely on cost savings. Baja also is home to a growing number of physicians, clinics, hospitals and spas that have achieved international recognition for the quality and innovation of their services. One such provider is Dr. Arturo Chayet, an award-winning ophthalmologist and founder of CODET Vision Institute. Another is Dr. Ariel Ortiz, a world renowned expert on lap-band surgery and a fellow of the American College of Surgeons.

Along with top doctors, Baja California and Tijuana have attracted multimillion-dollar investments in state-of-the-art infrastructure such as the medical facilities at Hospital Angeles de Tijuana, the first fully integrated hospital in the state. Also securing investments are the Sanoviv wellness center in Rosarito and the traditional but continuously evolving Rancho La Puerta spa in Tecate.

Serving The Underserved

Baja California also is a practical medical services alternative for some of the region's Hispanic population. More than 8 million Latinos live in Southern California and many lack medical insurance. Statewide, more than 6.5 million residents are uninsured. Of this group, about 55 percent (3.5 million) are Hispanic. Companies like United Healthcare are serving this market by partnering with other organizations such as SIMNSA, which is a California licensed HMO that covers services provided in Mexico. The network has more than 200 physicians in Baja California and its 22,000-plus subscribers are taking advantage of the lower cost of services and the familiarity with the language and culture.

Looking To The Future

Making Baja California an internationally recognized destination for health tourism will require more than a collection of “health stars” like Chayet or Hospital Angeles. It probably will require the tourism industry, which includes providers of hospitality services such as hotels, restaurants, tour operators and transportation companies, to co-ordinate with health services providers, government authorities, universities and professional organizations on marketing to these potential visitors.

Kenn Morris, president of Crossborder Business Associates, a San Diego-based market research firm, sees great potential for medical tourism. “In general, tourism industries are still growing well in the Baja peninsula,” Morris says. “Between 2000 and 2006, Baja California and Baja California Sur attracted more than $1.2 billion of foreign investment related to tourism.”

The reason for the spending, he says, is the size of the market.

“Just in the two U.S. states nearest to Baja California — California and Arizona — you have nearly 11 million people over the age of 50,” Morris says. “That’s an incredible market to offer medical-related tourist services too — and one that’s looking not just for affordable medical treatments, but also wellness or relaxation spa getaways, too.”

Morris sees focusing on medical tourism as a potential way to expand Baja’s employment base. “Take the example of Rancho La Puerta in Tecate,” he says. “Not only is it one of the city's largest employers, but it also provides some higher-paying and higher-skilled employment options compared to manufacturing. Besides that, it helps attract wealthier tourists that also help create other, indirect economic impacts on a region.”

To capitalize on this opportunity, the Tijuana Economic Development Council, known as CDT, launched in May an initiative to bring together the region’s professional colleges, universities, private companies and government officials in a concerted effort to increase the competitiveness of medical tourism. This multisector collaborative project includes four task forces that will deal with separate issues: institutional development, logistics and technology, accreditation and training, and public information. Each task force includes leaders from the different sectors and members of the medical and hospitality sectors.

Dr. Jaime Zozaya, president of IntelHealth Group, a health industry consulting firm in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, was hired by the CDT to coordinate this effort.

“This is the first multisector initiative in Baja California that is coordinated by the private sector with long-term initiatives that will integrate the tourism and the health service providers,” Zozaya says. “This will result in a world-class experience for international health tourists, with increased quality, safety and easy access at competitive costs.”

The coordinating leadership of the CDT, together with continuing investments in health services infrastructure and the tourism industry, such as newcomers like the anticipated Trump Ocean Resort and established players like the Rosarito Beach Hotel, will result in a more attractive destination for baby boomers and others looking to improve their health while enjoying the famous Baja hospitality.

Flavio Olivieri is an economic and sustainable development consultant and a board member of the Tijuana Economic Development Council.

Posted: Wednesday, June 11, 2008 11:25 AM by Herb Kinsey


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