Author: Joe Harkins
Nobody thought he’d play baseball again, not even the doctor who, half-a decade ago in the Dominican Republic, treated the right rotator cuff and ailing elbow of New York Mets pitcher Bartolo Colon with fat and bone marrow stem cells.
“So far so good, as the old saying goes,” Dr. Joseph Purita, the orthopedist who injected the stem cells at Clinica Union Medica in Santiago, told the N.Y. Daily News after watching the 40-year-old Colon pitch the Mets to another victory this season in New York. “Just goes to show you.”
Now, the Dominican Republic wants to show the world that the beach paradise in the Caribbean can not only export cigars, coffe and baseball, but an array of medical tourism procedures and treatments as well. But, industry players with a role in shaping the course of medical travel understand first things must come first.
Dr. Julio Amado Castaños Guzmán, president of Hospital General de la Plaza de la Salud and dean of Universidad Iberomericana (UNIBE), said any focus on medical tourism must center on the quality and safety of services and that efforts toward this goal must begin with continuing medical education, certification and accreditation. To this end and to their credit, Asociación Dominicana de Turismo de la Salud (ADTS) and UNIBE joined to partner with the Medical Tourism Association® to provide professional training and certification programs for related local medical tourism sectors – from healthcare professionals to hospitality interests – that will forge the Dominican Republic as a destination of choice for health and wellness travel.
Renée-Marie Stephano, President of the Medical Tourism Association®, said access to her organization’s online training platform is a critical component toward industry growth in the Dominican Republic.
Tourism on Rise
“There’s no mystery about the Dominican Republic,” she said. “International investors are well aware of the country’s status as an elite destination for tourism. Based on the success of the travel industry and the value it provides to the local economy, incorporating healthcare services into the ‘tourism’ equation makes perfect sense.”
Stephano said visitors to the Dominican Republic are on the rise again. Approximately 5.1 million tourists traveled to the Dominican Republic last year — a 9.6 percent increase from 2013 and tops in the region — according to the Caribbean Tourism Organization.
Hospitals and clinics in the Dominican Republic welcomed 20,000 international patients last year, 1,000 for plastic surgery alone. Dr. Alejandro Cambiaso, ADTS president and a member of the Medical Tourism Association® Advisory Board, said strategies to build health tourism in the Dominican Republic must include international partners and public and private alliances.
“Medical tourism is not a simple task and not always about providing an affordable treatment,” said Cambiaso, a primary care physician who also serves as chief of International and Preventive Services at Hospital General de la Plaza de la Salud. “The main focus needs to be on the patient experience including quality, safety and outcomes. Education and training is an important first step toward unifying those goals.”
In the Dominican Republic, three hospitals — Hospital General de la Plaza de la Salud, Hospital Metropolitano de Santiago (HOMS), and CEDIMAT — are working toward Joint Commission International accreditation, considered the gold standard in global healthcare.
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Cristina Cardona, the executive director of global programs for the Medical Tourism Association® who spoke at the National Forum on Health Tourism 2015 in Santo Domingo, said accreditation and certification communicates a specialized expertise and commitment to standards recognized by healthcare providers, insurance entities, government agencies and tourism and travel facilitators and, perhaps most importantly, the international patients they service.
“If the Dominican Republic wants to extend tourism beyond beaches and resort districts, patients need to feel safe, cared for and confident,” said Cardona, who has been working with the Ministry of Tourism and related stakeholders to implement medical tourism strategies. “This will not happen overnight, but must begin with a commitment to standards and a culture in which everyone recognizes their role to continuously improve services.”
A leap in this direction was taken earlier in the year when the Ministry of Tourism (MITUR), Ministry of Public Health and Social Assistance (MISPAS), the Dominican Medical Association (CMD) and the Association of Hotels and Tourism (ASONAHORES) agreed to formally develop a governing framework to promote health tourism in the Dominican Republic and generate revenue for the economy.
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Medical tourism is becoming increasingly popular in the Caribbean, where patients — particularly those from the United States — can find savings of up to 75 percent on procedures and treatments. Long a medical tourism destination for inexpensive plastic surgery and dental procedures, the Dominican Republic opened the first robotic surgery facility among the 13 regional island nations last year. The Samadi Robotic Institute, housed at HOMS, features a state-of-the-art da Vinci robot with multiple robotic arms that allow surgeons to perform delicate procedures including the removal of prostrates, gallbladders, and wombs, repair of heart valves, shrinking stomachs and transplanting organs.
“You’re going to change the lives of many, many people out there and be part of the first robotic institute in the Caribbean,” said Dr. David Samadi, namesake of the Samadi Institute, chief of robotic surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital, in N.Y., and medical correspondent at FOX News, at the time of the opening. “This is a huge blessing … for us to part of this; we are very proud.”
Back in the United States, the optimism in Santo Domingo is infectious. Certainly, no one could be happier about their decision to seek treatment in the Dominican Republic than Colon, who looked almost half-his-age sprinting off the pitcher’s mound to tag out a runner in a game against the Braves earlier this season.
“He’s helped my reputation, certainly,” said Purita, who operates Stem Cell Centers of America, a clinic in Boca Raton. “I’m indebted to him. I was very optimistic that (Colon) was going to get better. Was I optimistic that he was going to go back to the majors and win games? I wasn’t optimistic about that.”