Medical Tourism Planned For Bahamas

Bahamian healthcare facilities are likely to enter into joint ventures and partnerships with overseas providers in a bid to develop a medical tourism sector, the minister of tourism has indicated, with the industry targeting profitable niche markets seen as having long-term sustainability.

Vincent Vanderpool-Wallace told Tribune Business that it was the Bahamian medical/healthcare industry, and professional bodies such as the Medical Association of the Bahamas (MAB), that were "very enthusiastic about developing this" and driving the effort to position this nation as a premier medical tourism destination.

Acknowledging that providers in the sector were "very far advanced" in talks with overseas medical providers and facilities, Mr Vanderpool-Wallace hinted that rather than the latter entering the Bahamas on their own, they were more likely to link up with established Bahamian-owned companies.

"We're not just talking about new facilities," the minister confirmed to Tribune Business, indicating when asked by this newspaper that such relationships were more likely to take on the form of joint ventures, partnerships and re-brandings.

"There are two, which I would not be at liberty to name, that are very far advanced in moving that along," Mr Vanderpool-Wallace added of such relationships. He told Tribune Business he and his Ministry of Tourism team would receive an update on progress made in this area by the Bahamian medical industry at a meeting this week.

Several clues as to the potential identity of the prospective outside partners have been given already. Vernice Walkine, the Ministry of Tourism's director-general, speaking on the minister's behalf to the recent World Medical Tourism Congress in Los Angeles, said: "We propose to negotiate to bring established, world-class healthcare brands like the Cleveland or Mayo Clinic to our shores.

"Our desire is to partner with a premier medical provider that would be compatible with our Bahamian destination brand, and also with our Ministry of Health's standards for providing recognised, reputable and proven procedures in treatment."

Meanwhile, Mr Vanderpool-Wallace said that to establish the Bahamas as a leading medical tourism destination, it was not sufficient just to "open up the doors" and let the world know this nation was open for business.

While the Ministry of Tourism had obtained huge amounts of information on the global medical tourism industry, and received much advice from the Ministry of Health, Bahamian professionals and medical bodies, the precise economic benefits the sector might bring to this nation depended on the markets it ultimately targeted.

Those who travelled overseas for medical care, Mr Vanderpool-Wallace told Tribune Business, were "looking for specific treatment in specific areas, and a specific level of confidence".

"It's a matter of specializing in something that will be of great interest to those markets likely to come to us," the minister explained, suggesting that the medical tourism push would look to emulate the likes of financial service in focusing on particular niches.

"We are trying to define those areas precisely, and see what we need to do to become effective in those areas.... A key piece of it is the degree to which a particular niche is sustainable. We don't want to enter something that is desired today, and then find we become an also ran tomorrow."

Describing the development of a legislative, policy and investment incentives framework for Bahamian medical tourism as "a work in progress", Mr Vanderpool-Wallace said: "We have a lot of stuff in draft form, but have not finalised anything because we want to make sure we go into areas where we have a comparative advantage," he explained. "I think it's going to move along quite rapidly, and based on the progress we've made so far, I'm quite confident."

The minister acknowledged that developing medical tourism would help to diversify the Bahamian tourism industry and the wider economy, further reducing the former's reliance on 'sun, sand and sea' to attract visitors - an area where it faces competition with hundreds of countries.

"The environment is the canvas on which this thing [tourism] is painted," Mr Vanderpool-Wallace said.

There is certainly a sizeable medical tourism market for the Bahamas to tap into. In 2007, some 750,000 Americans travelled abroad for overseas medical services, spending $2.1 billion. By this year, the former number is expected to swell to six million.

Ms Walkine, in her address, said the Bahamas had already enjoyed some medial tourism success despite the absence of a policy framework, pointing to the availability of high intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) prostate cancer treatment.

"Already actively available in Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, India and the Dominican Republic, it became available in the Bahamas in 2008," Ms Walkine said. "An average of 15 patients per month travel to the Bahamas for treatment, staying for five days, and bringing along family members due to the convenience and affordability.

"This may be a relatively small example, but a potentially potent one, poised for exponential growth."

Doctors Hospital was also set to be accredited by Joint Commission International (JCI), "establishing it as a facility with exceptionally high standards, and as part of a high-quality network offering highly-skilled doctors, state-of-the-art equipment and innovative treatment".

Source: The Tribune