Panama Sets Sights on Medical Tourism
PANAMA CITY – Latin America’s shipping and banking hub is setting its sights on a new goal: to become the center of medical tourism in the Americas.
As the $60 billion medical tourism industry continues to grow worldwide, Panama is once again getting ready to cash in on its geographic advantage at the crossroads of the Americas.
Panamanian Congressman Dr. Hugo Moreno, president of the country’s congressional health commission, said he is in the final lobbying phase for a new medical tourism bill that aims to make Panama a hemispheric hub for North and South Americans seeking affordable, quality health care.
“The bill is 80 percent drafted, but we still need to consult with the doctors’ association,” Dr. Moreno told The Tico Times in an interview in Panama City. “But the four private hospitals are already involved and their associates are interested.”
If all goes according to plan, Moreno said, the bill will be presented to the congressional health commission for review before the end of the year, and will go before Congress for vote during the first quarter of 2011.
In many ways, Moreno said, medical tourism in Panama has already unofficially started. Foreigners are already coming to Panama to take advantage of the country’s first-class health care facilities at Punta Pacífica Hospital (www.hospitalpuntapacifica.com), the first Latin American hospital to be managed by Johns Hopkins Medicine International.
The idea of the new law, he said, is to regulate the industry and offer incentives for it to grow in an orderly and controlled manner, rather than risk the country’s prestige and international reputation on an unregulated industry.
The advantage Panama has, Moreno said, is that the market is already there and waiting to be tapped. The lawmaker noted that 5 million people pass through Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport each year, but fewer than 1 million actually leave the airport and enter the country as tourists.
“Many of the people who pass through our airport are going to look for medical services in other countries in South America or North America,” Moreno said.
As Tocumen airport expands to accommodate the new Copa Airlines hub, and with plans under way to build an international airport in the western province of Chiriquí, the flow of people coming to Panama is expected to increase dramatically in the years to come. By developing a medical tourism industry now, Moreno and others hope many of those future travelers will be coming here for treatment, rather than just passing through to catch a flight elsewhere.
Developers Push Initiative
While the bill makes its way through Congress, several real estate developers are already planning to take the ball and run with it once the law is passed.
“If you want to bring quality international tourism, you have to have quality medical services. It’s a must,” said Armel González, who’s developing the $1.5 billion Isla Saboga project (www.islasaboga.com) in Panama’s remote Pearl Islands archipelago, 40 kilometers southeast of the capital (NT, March 4).
González hopes to turn Isla Saboga into the world’s premier medical tourism destination.
“One of the weaknesses of Latin American countries is that the quality of medical facilities located close to the tourism sites is almost nil because tourism is being developed in remote areas,” González said. “That is also the case in Panama, where if you are not in one of the four main cities, you are not close to a hospital.”
The solution to that problem, González said, is investment in medical tourism.
“Medical tourism provides several benefits to the state,” he said. “It saves millions of dollars in public investment for new hospitals, because it is financed by the private sector; it gives emergency health services to people living in remote areas; and it helps attract tourism of all types because people will know that there is a quality health clinic in the area even if they are not going there for treatment.”
In the luxurious Valle Escondido development (www.valleescondido.biz) in the mountain town of Boquete, in Chiriquí, developer Sam Taliaferro has the same plan to convert his resort community into a world-class medial tourism destination.
“Our facilities in Valle Escondido and many small boutique resorts around the world lend themselves ideally to certain treatments for degenerative disease,” he said. “They not only offer a patient a resort/spa experience, they also have long- and short-term accommodations, along with many amenities, which make the treatment experience effective.”
Routine Care vs.
The concept of medical tourism shared by Moreno and González is to focus on preventive care and elective surgeries – not life-threatening conditions or emergency care.
By offering healthy patients quality health care options with 30 to 50 percent savings in a beautiful tropical setting, medical treatment would serve as a hook for tourism.
Moreno said Panama could offer “medical packages” for families to come down to Panama, have all their exams and lab work done, spend a week on the beach and still save money. Moreno noted that there are more than 30 million Latinos living in the United States who might not have health insurance and would be attracted to the idea of a week’s vacation in Latin America to take care of their medical needs at a more affordable price.
Other potential clients are big U.S. corporations that could be offered a more affordable health package for their employees, Moreno said.
González thinks many other people in North America would also be willing to travel for quality service and attention, as opposed to an assembly-line approach to health care in some U.S. hospitals.
But in Boquete, Taliaferro hopes to focus more on patients suffering from degenerative diseases using stem-cell treatment.
“There is a need for a compassionate and integrative approach to degenerative diseases for the ‘no-option patient,’” said Taliaferro, who is a cancer survivor. Stem-cell treatment, he said, “is controversial yet very effective for certain degenerative diseases.”
He said patients currently seeking stem-cell treatments go to Mexico, Asia, Europe and Russia. But as of last June, Panama also has a stem-cell research institute that moved here after it was forced to close its operations in Costa Rica due to ambiguities in that country’s health legislation (TT, June 16).
Taliaferro told The Tico Times in an e-mail that his plan is to acquire patients through doctor referrals and word of mouth. He said he is already developing a referral program for doctors who work with these kinds of patients.
“We want to provide patients with the latest technology coupled with a program of diet, exercise and psychological healing in order to provide a more effective treatment,” he said.
Taliaferro acknowledges that catering to “no-option patients” could pose the potential risk of charlatan care. That’s why careful and balanced regulations will need to be spelled out in the new law, he said.
“We need to protect the patient, while at the same time not stifle viable approaches to treatment,” Taliaferro said.
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