Medical tourism has been rising in importance in Colombia in recent years. It has been estimated that foreigners visiting the country for medical reasons spent a total of $216m in 2014, up 61% on $134m the year before. One of the incentives for inward health tourism is the relatively low cost of medical procedures, which are nevertheless carried out to high professional standards. For example, a heart bypass operation that would cost $80,000 in the US can cost as little as $26,000 in Colombia. Knee replacement surgery, which in the US costs $40,000, can be $15,000 in Colombia. These prices date from early 2015, and the depreciation of the Colombian peso will have reduced the dollar cost still further.
US Health Costs
A key factor contributing to the growth of medical tourism is high health care costs in developed economies. For Colombia, trends in the US are particularly relevant. According to Trip4Care, a medical tourism broker, even patients who are insured in the US find the out-of-pocket cost of certain operations can be extremely high. The company cites the case of a US citizen who needed knee surgery on both legs. The procedure would run to $40,000 in the US, but the broker arranged a week-long all-included visit for him and his wife to Cali, Colombia which, including the operation, cost $26,000. According to a survey by the US-based Medical Tourism Association, 61% of respondents said that the cost savings are the prime motivator for seeking medical care overseas.
The main hospitals attracting medical tourism are in Bogotá and Medellín. Bogotá is strong in cardiology, while in Medellín specialities include laser eye surgery, cosmetic surgery and dentistry. A survey by business publication América Economía showed that Medellín had eight of the top 42 hospitals and clinics in Latin America. Some 300,000 plastic surgery operations are carried out each year in Colombia.
The Doctor Is In
The city of Barranquilla is also seeking to develop its role in medical tourism. It has several medical schools, and a range of hospitals and medical centres, with three new hospitals under construction. Within Colombia, the city is competitive in terms of wage costs. The city administration also highlights the economic importance of sport and physical sciences. Barranquilla is the official home of Colombia’s national football team and the city will host the 2018 Central American and Caribbean games. Within the Atlantic region the health and pharmaceuticals sector is responsible for 4.2% of total employment and generates annual sales of $1.15bn. City officials believe the most promising lines for the development of medical tourism are cosmetic surgery, cardiology, dentistry, ophthalmology and traumatology.
Tourists visiting Colombia for medical reasons come mainly from the US, Spain, Germany, Venezuela, the Caribbean and Canada. But accurate statistics on these flows of “medical tourists” are hard to come by. The local press regularly quotes estimates of 20,000-30,000 annual visitors arriving in the country for medical reasons. It is suggested that the number probably dropped in the years following the global economic recession, although figures have more recently begun to recover.
More recently, officials from the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Tourism working on the Productive Transformation Programme (Programa de Transformación Productiva, PTP), a project to encourage economic diversification, said that around 41,000 foreigners visited Colombia in 2014 for medical treatment. “Health tourism is growing worldwide, because the global population is ageing, which implies that there is a growing number of people looking for health and wellbeing services,” PTP manager César Peñaloza said. “Global purchasing power has also risen, meaning people are spending more on curative and preventive health.” In this context, he said, “Colombia is emerging as a health destination because of its high levels of professionalism in complex medical procedures and its regionally competitive prices.” The medical tourism industry can be broken down into four sub-sectors: curative health; preventive treatments; cosmetic procedures; and wellbeing.
Cosmetic surgery has strong prospects for continued growth. Lina Triana, president of the Colombian Society for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, said that Colombia is a good destination for these treatments because it has high standards, experienced surgeons, modern facilities and low prices. The most popular procedures are liposuction, breast enhancement surgery, rhinoplasty (nose surgery) and blepharoplasty (eyelid surgery).
The wellbeing sub-sector is still in its infancy, but also has very encouraging growth prospects. Leisure and health spa spending is rising internationally, and Colombia’s diverse natural landscapes, which include thermal springs, offer an attractive environment to build new facilities. The government is encouraging companies in the health spa business to form an association and market the industry internationally.
Achieving high standards of quality and safety is a key challenge. To promote medical and surgical procedures to overseas consumers, it is essential to reassure them that the highest international standards are being observed. One way to do that is to seek certification. In October 2015, for example, Medellín’s Pablo Tobón Uribe (PTU) hospital said it had achieved certification from the US-based Joint Commission International (JCI), which seeks to identify and share best practices in quality and patient safety. The hospital deals with some 13,500 in-patients a year, of which 3000 are foreign. Adolfo León Moreno Gallego, head of the city’s medicine and dentistry services cluster, welcomed the award. “This certification will further empower health tourism in Medellín. It is important that the work we do is recognised internationally,” he said. PTU joins three other Colombian hospitals that have received JCI certification: Fundación Cardiovascular de Colombia (FCV) of Bucaramanga, and Fundación Santa Fé and Fundación Cardioinfantil, both in Bogotá.
Local institutions are also developing partnerships with internationally renowned organisations. In April 2015 FCV announced a 10-year agreement with University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre (UPMC) to jointly develop and manage an oncology centre for adults and children, the first private cancer programme of its type in Colombia. The centre, due to be built at Hospital Internacional de Colombia and to open in 2016, is primarily focused on Colombian patients, but will also enhance FCV’s international reputation. “By providing access to UPMC’s processes, the FCV aims to better serve patients both within Colombia and throughout Latin America,” said Victor Castillo, chairman of the FCV. “This agreement builds on our successful six-year relationship in cardiology with Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.”
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