Author: Joe Harkins
Like many tourists visiting Florida, she and her son went to Disney World before driving east to the beach to check out a rocket launch at Cape Canaveral. Before Amy Caterina returned to her home 2,500 miles away in Southern California, she made one last stop in Orlando again to visit a team of plastic surgeons at UF Health Cancer Center – Orlando Health.
Beyond warm sunny days at the beach or pool, Caterina now has a greater appreciation of the Sunshine State. Health and tourism officials are hoping more visitors like Caterina, who returned four months later to undergo vascular lymph node transfer at UF Health Cancer Center, will transform the state’s sun and sand into a hot spot for medical tourism.
Visit Florida, the state’s tourism arm, said that grants totaling $2.5 million will be offered to bring this goal to fruition. One will strengthen Florida’s position as a medical tourism destination of choice for both international and domestic healthcare consumers; the other will be to market related medical conferences, meetings and training programs.
“Patients around the world are no longer looking for procedures and treatments only within their own neighborhood, state or national boundaries,” said Renée-Marie Stephano, President of the Medical Tourism Association®. “When these potential patients combine Florida’s attractions, and warm weather with healthcare services that are not only readily accessible, but super-specialized – like in this case, a side effect to breast cancer — Florida becomes a serious consideration for medical travel.”
Few hospitals offer the type of comprehensive approach to lymphedema that Caterina found at UF Health Cancer Center, where surgeons have now performed the procedure more than 55 times including at least 7 on medical travel patients.
As many as 6.8 million Americans have lymphedema, which prevents lymph fluid from draining from body tissues. The fluid builds up, causing chronic, painful, disfiguring and even immobilizing swelling. Many patients must wear special compression garments, have daily compression massages and have the fluid drained regularly.
“More and more people are flying into Orlando for this operation,” said Richard Klein, M.D., section chief of the Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Center at the UF Health Cancer Center – Orlando Health. “In fact, we’ve been performing this surgery just over a year now, and in that time we’ve already consulted with patients from 22 different states about it. I think we’re going to become more and more known for this type of procedure and we hope that patients are going to fly in not only from around the country, but from around the world as well.”
When they do, healthcare providers, hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions near hospitals and clinics in Florida stand to benefit from the medical tourism grants, funded by the state legislature during the 2014 session.
“The establishment of these grants is a tremendous first step in our strategic planning process to spotlight Florida’s world-class doctors and facilities,” said Will Secombe, Visit Florida president and CEO.
Visit Florida received $5 million in state funding to promote Florida medical tourism. Each grant awarded under the new medical tourism promotional program will be matched by private funds. Stephano, who serves on the Visit Florida Medical Tourism Taskforce and the gran subcommittee, said the goal of the grant program is to promote new service lines and enhance target markets to increase existing inbound patient flow.
That’s fine with patients like Caterina, who, before the grant program, was fortunate to learn about the lymphedema opportunity at UF Health Cancer Center on social media.
“I researched it (lymphedema),” said Caterina. “Interestingly enough, I couldn’t find anything close to home, which is ironic because I live in San Diego and it’s a big city. So, I decided to come to Orlando.”