Some States Spend Big to Attract Medical Tourists

Lawmakers are pouring millions of dollars into making their states a destination for patients around the world. Will their investments pay off?
by | August 9, 2016
Using the Mayo Clinic as its core, Minnesota is developing the “Destination Medical Center” in Rochester. (Glen Stubbe/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)

Joe McNamara, a state representative in Rhode Island, likens medical tourism in his state to the iconic line in "Field of Dreams": If you build it, they will come. Or so he hopes.

People have been traveling faraway to get health-care needs met for centuries. For many, this type of tourism might conjure up images of wealthy Americans heading to developing countries for elective cosmetic surgeries at half the cost -- topped off with a beach recovery.

But the practice has started to shift stateside, as a few legislatures work to attract medical tourists to their own states.

McNamara had a lightbulb moment while attending a medical tourism conference. There, he heard about a man who went to Costa Rica for a $5,000 knee replacement surgery -- a mere fraction of the average $31,000 price in the U.S. While the surgery went well, “he couldn’t stop complaining about his lodgings,” said McNamara. “I realized then that we had the necessary infrastructure -- like nice hotels and world class medical facilities -- for medical tourism here in Rhode Island."

U.S. states obviously can't compete with the low prices of health care in South America or Eastern Europe. But they can offer more specialty services and higher quality recovery facilities.

For his part, McNamara is trying to make it easier for health facilities to expand their services by removing some of the bureaucratic barriers that can keep them from developing. The legislature already approved $48 million for a medical office complex in the town of Warwick that will provide more specialized services. If city council approves, McNamara's dream of Rhode Island as a medical destination could become a reality.

Florida, perhaps the most obvious medical tourism destination in the U.S., is also trying to get in on the action. In 2014, the state allocated $5 million to the state’s medical tourism industry, with more than half of the money going toward grants that would help market the Sunshine State as a destination for patients and medical conferences.

“Florida has feasted on tourism, so I wanted to pivot our focus on the medical aspect of travel. We want people to come and receive care in world class facilities, then of course recover on the beach,” said Florida state Sen. Aaron Bean.

“I grew up working as a waiter and bartender in a small beach town. I know the transformative power tourists can have," said Bean. "On top of that, medical tourists will spend up to 10 times the amount that a regular tourist will spend."

The state is expected to get preliminary data from grantees soon showing whether or not that $5 million has paid off.

Efforts like these aren't without controversy. Some argue it's a waste of money that could be better used on something else.

Leigh Turner, a co-author of Risks and Challenges in Medical Tourism, said "A common complaint I hear is that medical tourism doesn’t do anything to promote local access to care. Why would a state use funds when there are basic questions around health equity within the state?”

In Turner’s home state, Minnesota, there’s a $6.5 billion effort to build the “Destination Medical Center” in Rochester. Using the Mayo Clinic as its core, the goal is to make the town a global destination for all things health and wellness. Approved by the city council in 2015, the plan is expected to span 20 years.

Using resources that already exist, like the Mayo Clinic, is a good place to start if state lawmakers want to build a medical tourism industry, said Turner.

“Ask yourself what you can do to increase the numbers of people already visiting a certain clinic. Do you need a coordination office, do you need to boost advertising? Capitalize on a market that already exists."