TAMPA — Tourists like to come to the Tampa Bay area because of the sunshine and the beaches. But what if they came for the sunshine, the beaches and a medical procedure?
That’s the premise behind local efforts to make Tampa Bay area counties a destination for medical tourism. Proponents say it makes sense to market local hospitals and other health care institutions along with Busch Gardens, Clearwater Beach and the Salvador Dalí Museum.
“If you’ve got to have a medical procedure, why rehabilitate in a freezing city up north when you can come to St. Petersburg or Tampa and rehabilitate at a hotel on the beach,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist. “And your family would come with you and enjoy the weather and the parks while you’re going through your treatment and rehab.”
Crist and other members of the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council recently voted to hire a consultant to analyze the Bay area’s potential for drawing medical tourists. The council will ask the Hillsborough and Pinellas county commissions to contribute $75,000 each and for Manatee and Pasco counties to pitch in $25,000 apiece.
The consultant’s job will be to assess what medical specialties or treatment centers in this area stand out as special or elite in some way. In other words, what are the area’s strengths that can be built upon and marketed to out-of-state patients.
“You always have across-the-board care for a lot of things,” said Avera Wynne, planning director at the regional planning council. “But, as in anything where you’re trying to grow business, you want to find out where your strong points are and make your investments at what you’re best at and trying to make those better.”
Wynne said hospitals and health care associations are marketing themselves more and more to other states or regions. Those efforts are separate from the branding and outreach practiced by traditional convention and visitors bureaus. There is also a growing international medical tourism phenomenon as patients look to other countries for specialized or less-expensive treatment.
“The thing to know is how do you synchronize those areas,” he said. “First we have to find out what our niche is in the medical industry and how might we attract patients from around the country.”
Changing trends in how health care is delivered and paid for are boosting the medical tourism phenomenon, Crist and others said. Big corporations are starting to assemble their own integrated medical programs that can cross state and national borders in the pursuit of better or more affordable care. And insurance companies are increasingly working in networks with physicians groups.
“The new way is the insurance industries are getting into the business of cutting deals and creating networks of providers that may not be local,” Crist said. “If you need a major dental procedure or surgery, they may send you somewhere else to do it that may be less expensive or has better outcomes.”
Crist said he’s talked to commissioners in the three other counties adjoining Hillsborough and they all have endorsed the idea. He’s also contacted the Medical Tourism Association about holding its 2017 conference in Tampa. The global, nonprofit association has agreed to consider the idea, he said.
Pinellas County Commissioner John Morroni said it makes sense to incorporate the area’s elite health care institutions into a marketing package with familiar tourist attractions. The Bay area enjoys a reputation for top-flight medical care at institutions such as the Moffitt Cancer Center and Tampa General Hospital in Tampa and All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.
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In the realm of medical research, the area can boast cutting-edge centers such as the Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute at the University of South Florida and the Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation in downtown Tampa.
“We have so much to highlight,” Morroni said. “We have cancer hospitals and heart hospitals. All Children’s Hospital is widely known. There are so many types of specialties we have to promote.”
Morroni recalled that while he was undergoing treatment at Moffitt Cancer Center in 2012, his wife stayed with him at a hotel near the Moffitt campus. Most spouses would choose to do the same, Morroni said, and it would be good if they had something nearby to take their minds off their loved one’s medical issues.
“This is not talking about going to Orlando and Disney World,” Morroni said. “Anyone can go for a walking tour for a couple of hours with family members while a loved one is getting treatment to take your mind off it.”
Jack Kolosky, the chief operating officer and hospital president at Moffitt Cancer Center, said he doesn’t think Moffitt should be part of a vacation package because of the seriousness of cancer treatment. But Kolosky said he doesn’t object if tourism organizations include Moffitt in promotions regarding the area’s premier health care and research institutions.
“I think the idea that some of the best cancer care with great outcomes and great physicians is here in Tampa Bay at Moffitt Cancer Center, to the extent that groups are willing to promote that, we would love to be part of that,” Kolosky said.