Health Tourism: room for significant growth

For years now, successive Caribbean Governments have talked about the development of health tourism; a simple concept but complex in its implementation.

As a business it ranges from the provision of medical services in the broadest sense for everything from wellness spas, through cosmetic surgery, to the replacement of joints, surgery, dentistry, and facilities for convalescence. It also embraces care homes and sheltered housing for the elderly.

Statistics show that globally health tourism generates US$35 billion a year; cosmetic surgery is worth US$7.5 billion alone as a business in the US; and the spa sector is growing by 9 per cent annually, compared to 6 per cent in the travel and tourism sector more generally.

What is clear is that any Caribbean nation at the northern end of the region with good connections by air and modern facilities should be well placed to capitalise on this. There is a huge southern US market for medical services, a market of around four million in the Caribbean Diaspora who in many cases would prefer to receive treatment ‘at home’, and a growing demand for a range of medical procedures and recuperation in a warm and pleasant environment. In addition, Jamaica and its CARICOM neighbours have many world class medical professionals, the advantage of being English speaking, and many of the nursing and hospitality skills that go with aftercare.

It is a business that, well run, can improve local services while providing care at significantly lower cost than in North America. Speaking about this last April to the Jamaica Gleaner in relation to his own specialisation, the Jamaican plastic surgeon, Dr Geoffrey Williams, noted that a patient spending around US$10,000 in hospital fees in the US could pay as little as US$2,000 at a local facility.

Proof that it can become a valuable industry and encourage significant levels of investment that can be seen in developments now taking place in Cayman and Turks and Caicos.

In the Turks and Caicos Islands, a form of health tourism has been developed in two hospitals in cooperation with Global MedChoices, a US based medical agency. This involves utilising spare capacity at hospitals by flying in not only the patients but also US-based medical teams to perform the surgery. Government there has also formed a taskforce to consider how best to establish other forms of medical tourism.

In the Cayman Islands, Health City Cayman Islands, a major new medical facility aimed at the overseas and domestic market, is now complete and expected to start receiving patients soon. Officially opened on 25 February with 140 beds, with state-of-the-art technology and a planned expansion to 2,000 beds in the next 15 years, it is the brainchild of Dr Devi Shetty. He is the globally known Indian cardiologist and philanthropist whose use of economies of scale to provide affordable healthcare in India has led to him becoming known as the ‘Henry Ford of heart surgery’. The complex reportedly involves a US$2 billion investment and is expected to earn more than US$43 billion over the next decade.

Cuba too has established, alongside its free healthcare facilities, a business that offers on a global basis all surgical procedures from the complex to the simple, but is constrained by the US Embargo and US regulations from offering such services in its nearest market.

In Jamaica, the island’s Ministry of Tourism and Entertainment, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Investment, Industry and Commerce recently announced that they are jointly working on a health-tourism policy.

What all this points to is a new opportunity. With the right forms of regulation and insurance, and better recognition of how the tourism and hospitality might be better joined to health care in its widest sense, the Western Caribbean in particular ought to be able to develop an almost completely new and competitive service industry.