September 23, 2023
Health & Insurance.

‘International Medicine’ Growing in Medellin; Goes beyond ‘Medical Tourism’

Thanks to big investments recently in hospital/clinic infrastructure, high technology, multinational training, prestigious certifications and new international alliances, metro Medellin is broadening its reputation as a destination for “international medicine” — as opposed to just “medical tourism,” the latter often perceived as relatively simple plastic surgery or dental work.

Several examples of this new trend emerged at the recent “Medesalud 2015” conference here, featuring expert speakers from top Medellin-based hospitals/clinics as well as health-care experts from world-renowned institutions including the Mayo Clinic (USA), the Cleveland Clinic (USA) and Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein (Brazil).

Sharing the limelight at Medesalud 2015 were researchers, doctors and administrators from prestigious Medellin institutes including Clinica CardioVid, Clinica El Rosario, IPS Universitario, Clinica Oftalmologia San Diego, Hospital Pablo Tobon Uribe, Clinica Universitaria Bolivariana and San Vicente Fundacion.

In a follow-up interview with Medellin Herald, San Vicente Fundacion’s chief marketing officer Ana Maria Moreno, cardiopulmonary and vascular center medical director Dr. Sergio Franco (MD), and international-patient medical-concierge director Dr. Catalina Ramirez (MD) explained recent initiatives that have provided a big boost to Medellin’s growing “international medicine” sector.

While San Vicente Fundacion´s University Hospital has a 100-year-history as both a teaching center and as an open-door-policy hospital near downtown Medellin, the non-profit, private foundation recently built a US$125 million, 160-bed, high-technology, “specialized medical center” featuring spectacular architecture, world-class hospital infrastructure, and an exceptionally “green” environmental design – conveniently located just two kilometers from Medellin’s international airport at Rionegro.

Last year alone, San Vicente Foundation hosted some 800 international patients – a number that has been growing steadily since the specialized medical center opened four years ago.

International-patient growth would accelerate in future years when the foundation completes all eight planned wings for specialized medicine at the Rionegro center — in addition to the current three wings (with a fourth wing nearly complete).

This new facility offers cardiovascular surgery, peripheral vascular and thoracic surgery, “minimally invasive” cardiovascular surgery, “non-invasive” cardiology, cardiopulmonary rehabilitation, electro-physiology, ablation of arrhythmias, artificial cardiac pacemakers, hemodynamics, tridimensional echocardiography, neumology, diagnostics in non-invasive cardiology and pneumology, gastro-intestinal and hepatic disease diagnosis and treatment, radiotherapy, neurosurgery, deep brain stimulation, bariatric surgery, orthopedics, reconstructive surgery and sports medicine.

The facility also features the world’s latest and most advanced “Cat scan” technology as well as a super-sophisticated “3 Tesla” MRI. The foundation also hosts advanced research, and its researchers publish the results of their investigations for the global medical community.

Operating rooms – featuring the latest computer-controlled, mechanized surgical equipment – include special television cameras that enable real-time, expert surgeon consultations, as well as enabling high-precision learning by medical students.

While foreigners by law are banned from receiving organ transplants from Colombian nationals (because of a shortage of local donors), foreigners can get such transplants from a live donor – providing that they get official permission from Colombian government authorities.

San Vicente Fundacion will undertake all the necessary procedures and paperwork to obtain the government permission.

The foundation also has a multi-lingual concierge service for both international patients and their accompanying family members. The service includes recommendations and help on obtaining convenient hotel lodgings as well as help on local tours, restaurants and other activities.

In addition, the foundation’s international-patient concierge arranges pre-surgery consultations, doctor consults, diagnostic services, and post-surgical follow-up – which in some cases could include a Skype internet connection to the patient and/or the doctor in the home country.

San Vicente Fundacion also hosts each year more than 4,500 medical students from Colombia, the U.S. and elsewhere, and also hosts doctors and other medical researchers studying certain tropical diseases and specialized medical procedures used to treat such diseases.

In turn, many of San Vicente Fundacion’s specialized doctors and surgeons study at leading international medical institutes including several in North America, Dr. Franco explained.

On a related front, San Vicente Fundacion just signed an alliance agreement with the world-famous Mount Sinai health system in New York, which will enable bilateral, joint investigations in medical diagnostics and clinical practices, as well as specialized doctor and nurse training. The alliance also will involve teachings in novel patient safety techniques (such as avoiding infections or accidental falls during hospital stays).

The “alliance” agreement with Mount Sinai was the result of a rigorous, 18-months-long evaluation of San Vicente Fundacion facilities, staff, technology, practices and management, Dr. Franco told Medellin Herald.

In addition, San Vicente Fundacion has won national accreditation from ICONTEC, which is recognized by the International Society for Quality in Healthcare (ISQua). The foundation also is also seeking Joint Commission International (JCI) accreditation – probably the world’s most-demanding international medical standard.

On a related front, the University Hospital of San Vicente Fundacion won the 15th position in AmericaEconomia’s latest ranking of the top 42 hospitals and clinics in Latin America.  (San Vicente Fundacion’s specialized medicine facility at Rionegro hasn’t been operating enough years yet to qualify for an AmericaEconomia ranking, even though its doctors and surgeons have many decades of experience).

In all, San Vicente Fundacion now offers 27 medical specialties and 76 subspecialties in almost every area of medicine and integrated procedures, Dr. Franco explained.

The ability to offer these relatively high-complexity medical procedures – including organ transplants – should make the foundation stand-apart from conventional notions about “medical tourism,” he added.

International Medicine Advantages

Besides offering a wide variety of high-complexity, high-quality medical procedures, Medellin also has big advantages in cost (versus North America or Europe) — and in time-to-treatment, as San Vicente Fundacion chief marketing officer Ana Maria Moreno explained.

For example: While Canadian citizens may have access to the government-run national health system in Canada, this system often imposes lengthy delays on procedures that aren’t viewed as urgent or life-saving — such as hip replacements, she said.

As a result, a patient in Canada might have to wait up-to-nine-months for certain procedures. But the same procedure for this international patient can be scheduled and performed relatively quickly at San Vicente Fundacion’s specialized center in Rionegro, she said.

Similarly, a patient that lacks a private health insurance policy and can’t afford the high prices typical of many medical procedures in the USA can come to Medellin and pay cash or credit to get the same high-quality procedure for a fraction of the USA cost.

Yet another example: Some companies that now self-insure for employee health coverage – rather than pay high policy premiums — are finding that they can offer “bonus” payments to employees for international medicine at much lower net cost, she said.

A fourth example:  Caribbean island nations or neighbor countries have discovered that metro-Medellin medical institutes offer specialized procedures that aren’t available in their home countries – and at an acceptable cost. In some cases, both private and public health-insurance schemes in such nations cover both the cost of travel and medical procedures in Medellin.

Word-of-mouth from satisfied customers (that is, patients) has helped Medellin’s international-medicine “cluster” reach thousands of international patients in many countries.

In addition, San Vicente Fundacion (and other members of the Medellin medical “cluster”) have reached-out to foreign health-insurance companies and agencies to negotiate contracts, agreements and coverages, Moreno told us. The foundation has already signed agreements with several major international health-insurance companies.

The international medical-professional community also is spreading the word about the high quality and competitive costs at prestigious Medellin medical institutes — and referring patients to San Vicente Fundacion, she added.

International medical conferences (such as Medesalud), Colombian trade promotion fairs (such as those involving ProColombia) and international industry events (such as the Medical Tourism Association annual meeting) also help spread the word, as do international visitors and foreign employees working in Medellin that seek medical care.

Tapping into the gigantic health-care market in North America has the obvious challenge of language barriers — since most don’t North Americans speak Spanish — as well as unfamiliarity or uncertainty about Colombia generally and Medellin specifically.

However, the huge and growing Spanish-speaking communities in North America are a natural market for Medellin’s international medicine offerings, Moreno explained. What’s more, people in these Hispanic communities increasingly turn to internet search engines to find out about international medicine in Latin American generally as well as Medellin specifically, she said.

In any case, English-speaking-only patients aren’t a problem for San Vicente Fundacion’s specialized medical center at Rionegro, as the center has a dedicated, English-fluent medical “concierge” director, as well as bilingual (and some multi-lingual) doctors, nurses and other staff that can ensure 24-hour patient communications, she said.

On a related front, San Vicente Fundacion also has launched “Rosetta Stone” English proficiency classes for hospital staff, medical-concierge director Dr. Catalina Ramirez added.

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