In less than a decade, Colombia has become the premier destination for medical tourism. It's now a hub for patients from around the world seeking complex specialised treatment such as knee and hip replacements, cardiac surgery, gastric bypass, pacemaker implantation, mitral value replacement, cosmetic surgeries, dentistry and orthopedics. Services such as embryo storage and freezing, coronary angiogram tests and executive physical examinations are also available.
Medical tourism has been promoted as an inexpensive and even enjoyable way to see the world while getting high-quality surgeries and procedure. In 2006, the industry grossed about US$60 billion worldwide. It is estimated to reach US$100 billion this year.
By 2015, it is projected that the United States of America will spend over 20 per cent of its annual Gross Domestic Product on medical tourism. Approximately 108 million Americans do not have dental insurance, according to a booklet obtained from FOSCAL Hospital in Bucaramanga, during a familiarisation health trip organised by the Proexport, an institution in charge of commercial promotion of non-traditional exports, international tourism and foreign investment in Colombia.
FOSCAL was one of eight hospitals the Sunday Guardian visited during a familiarisation health trip organised by the Proexport, an institution in charge of commercial promotion of non-traditional exports, international tourism and foreign investment in Colombia.
Medical tourism in Colombia was expected to generate revenues of US$150 million in 2010, according to that country's Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism. The ministry expects this figure to increase to US$260 million by year end.
Colombia is the 26th largest country by area and the fourth largest in South America after Brazil, Argentina and Peru with more than 46 million people. There are over 50 private hospitals in Colombia.
The country offers a contributory health plan to citizens who are able to pay, and a subsidized health plan for those unable to pay.
The Deloitte Center for Health Solutions predicts that approximately 1.6 million Americans will travel outside their country for medical care this year, with an anticipated yearly growth of 35 per cent. Increased sophistication of medical tourism operations, demand for cosmetic surgery and access to low-cost global transportation are cited by Deloitte as the major factors for growth in the sector.
Hospitals that offer the latest technology such as the gamma knife, a device used to treat brain tumors with a high dose of radiation therapy, as well as the cyberknife robotic radiosurgery system, a non-invasive alternative to surgery for cancerous and non-cancerous tumors, are the most sought after. Patients look for availability, since in many countries, care is delayed because of long wait times.
Throughout Colombia hospitals are being built and expanded to meet the demands of international and local patients. New medical facilities offer spacious individual rooms equipped with wi-fi, LED televisions, games, magazines, reclining chairs, cupboards, decorative glass doors and other high-end features.
Many hospitals have been constructed in areas with abundant fauna and flora and noise-controlled environments to help patients recover quickly. Some are going one step further by building five star hotels to accommodate spouses or family members who accompany patients.
Developing countries with poor medical infrastructure
In Medellin, general manager of Sanvicente Fundacion, Julio Ernesto Toro Restrepo, recently turned the sod for Colombia's first green hospital. It is expected to cost US$160 million. In the first phase it will be equipped with 180 beds, 35 intensive and intermediate care centres, transplant and tissue centres and a high capacity heliport. Once completed, the hospital will be able to accommodate 500 patients in 12 specialised centres.
Restrepo told the Sunday Guardian that the hospital may expand to another location and still be in tune with developments in technology in an atmosphere conducive to comfort and healing. "Some patients live in developing countries with poor medical infrastructure. Other patients want affordable options for elective procedures, such as in-vitro fertilization or laser eye surgery, that they have to pay themselves," said Restrepo.
The majority of international patients, he said, come from the United States, Spain, Germany, Venezuela, Caribbean, Aruba, and Canada. Jaime Escallon, vice president of Clinica Colsanitas in Bogota, admitted that surgeries cost patients 30 per cent less than what they pay in their country. Comparing a list of prices, Escallon said heart bypass surgery in the United States costs between US$60,000 and US$80,000, while knee replacement surgery is priced at US$40,000.
Clinica Colsanitas offers those surgeries for US$26,000 and US$14,900 respectively. "Also, the cost of cosmetic rhinoplasty can range between US$3,700 and $4,600 in the USA. However, it can be done for only US$3100 at our hospital," Escallon boasted. While fees vary at hospitals, Escallon said all medical procedures require that international patients arrive in the country two or three days prior to their surgery.
"They would have to remain a few days or hours depending on what was done, so doctors can monitor their recovery. It's all about service and reaching out to the needs of the patient," he said.