Medical Tourism within the Caribbean

By J Frederick Emert
Op-Ed contributor

According to the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), the overall impact of the medical tourism industry contributed 9 percent to global GDP in 2011 (over $ 6 trillion) and accounted for 255 million jobs.

Medical tourism is expected to grow an average of 4 percent per year over the next decade, accounting for up to 10 percent of future global GDP ($ 10 trillion). An estimated 328 million jobs will be created in the medical tourism industry by 2022, which is 10 percent of the world’s jobs.

The mere economic benefits of medical tourism to patients and doctors should warrant a serious look at care outside of the US – let alone the aesthetic reasons for choosing to offer treatment at an offshore medical center, which is usually one of the nicest locations in the world.

The following is a list of the top 10 countries for medical tourism and the percentage of lower costs compared to the US: Brazil (25% -40%), Costa Rica (40% -65%), India (65% -90%)) , South Korea (30% -45%), Malaysia (65% -80%), Mexico (40% -65%), Singapore (30% -45%), Taiwan (40% -55%), Thailand (50% -70%) and Turkey (50% -65%). In addition, Patients Beyond Borders estimates that medical tourism is growing by 25 to 35% per year, creating the conditions for growth in new regions.

Not a single Caribbean nation is listed above. How could a region with so many American doctors training be excluded from the top 10?

The Caribbean is undoubtedly the region that will benefit most from building a robust medical tourism market. Many people know the Caribbean medical schools. However, there are 27 medical schools in the English-speaking Caribbean countries. Only five schools are accredited by the internationally recognized Caribbean Accreditation Authority for Education in Medicine and Other Health Professions (CAAM-HP).

More are likely to seek and achieve accreditation in the coming years, as the latest rule of the Education Commission for Foreign Medicine Graduates (ECFMG) requires that International Medicine Graduates (IMGs) must graduate from school with an ECFMG certification in order to apply and receive an unrestricted medical license to practice medicine in the United States from the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE).

The Caribbean should therefore work with doctors, hospital groups and insurers to develop a system that benefits both the patient and the doctor: attracting top surgeons with lower costs for the patient and giving the often financially troubled people a much-needed economic upswing provide islands.

And while there are well-documented cases of poor treatment in certain offshore medical centers, they rarely employ US-licensed doctors. So there is an opportunity to balance care and costs.

Hospitals and doctors should seize the opportunity to create a surgical center that meets the demands of the global medical market as they can offer high quality care at lower rates and fewer government restrictions on the use of proven medical technologies. However, U.S. licensed physicians should be able to practice on these offshore medical destinations without uprooting their practice, life, and family. At least not in the beginning.

So why not develop an offshore surgery center that operates like a time share?

The centers would be modeled on the traditional time-share or part-ownership model often used in vacation rentals or private jets.

Doctors would have a week or a month to run an operating room for their patients who choose treatment that is either not available or too expensive in the US.

While this tactic won’t work everywhere in the world, it could work in regions closest to the United States given how many patients seek treatment outside of the United States.

Caribbean destinations are therefore best positioned to benefit most from the creation of time-share surgical centers.

The Caribbean could benefit from this burgeoning industry and the intimate relationships between the US medical industry and the Caribbean, as medical tourism is a viable alternative to the already high and steadily rising costs of US health care.

The offshore medical centers would be an extension of the doctor’s office at home; Eliminating costly, experimental, and / or non-FDA approved surgical procedures to medical tourism destinations while delivering the high quality of care that patients expect from doctors in the United States.

Recently, Jamaica decided to expand into the medical tourism market. Because of its proximity to the United States and the island’s beauty, Jamaica is a natural complement to benefit from US surgeons and patients who are flying down for surgery.

If Jamaica develops a system of time-share centers for health care, they will live up to the mission of becoming a medical tourist destination by boosting the economy and raising the island’s international profile.

In addition, Jamaica would stand out as an industry leader and a premier offshore medical destination with the ability to host US-licensed doctors year-round.

Jamaican investment and advertising agency JAMPRO estimates the average medical tourist spends $ 5,000, which is twice the current average tourist.

Now imagine adding the amount of money raised by the patients to the expenses of the doctors themselves – that is a sizable amount of money generated for a particular nation.

In addition, doctors would most likely bring their families with them as well. There would also likely be permanent support staff to the hospital staff, earning higher wages, which would only add to the national coffers.

As medical tourism increases, more Americans are receiving treatment abroad. It is imperative that patients are protected from poor treatment, fraud, and unlicensed doctors.

Establishing surgical centers with licensed surgeons would provide patients with the same level of security they require domestically, and provide them with greater economic benefits and treatment options abroad.

However, creating an offshore surgery center shouldn’t be a way to circumvent United States laws and the accountability of doctors, hospitals, and insurers. On the contrary – it should empower patients around the world, not just the Caribbean, by accelerating a more unified medical approach and higher treatment expectations, whether you are in Tennessee, Jamaica, or Malaysia.

There is a lot to balance in developing this concept: law and ethics, international standards, government regulations, and bilateral medical and malpractice trade agreements to protect patients who may seek compensation for a failed procedure.

Even so, at a time of great economic uncertainty, bold steps will determine which nations will succeed.

For the Caribbean, the medical foundation and familiarity is already in place. All that is needed is an evolution of its purpose to meet today’s medical requirements and expectations.

J Frederick Emert is a third year law student at the University of Miami School of Law.

Note: The opinions expressed in the Caribbean Journal Op-Eds are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Caribbean Journal.

Follow J Frederick Emert on Twitter: @jfemert