HEALTH: There’s a market for Medical Tourism in Barranquilla

Flight map Miami to Barranquilla. Map created in Google Maps.

Christmas and the New Years’ holidays are an excellent excuse for vacationing in the Caribbean. Face it; winter’s no fun. It’s cold and dreary and comes packed with stress. It’s a great time to find a sunny beach and relax in a hammock with a mojito. If you’re originally from the Caribbean, it can be a nice opportunity to spend some quality time with family back home. There’s another reason more and more people are booking trips to the Caribbean, and it might surprise you. Now more than ever before, people are coming south to get high-quality medical procedures at a fraction of the cost they would otherwise pay in the States.

Medical tourism is worth an estimated $35.5 to 55 billion USD worldwide, and the market is growing at a rate of 15-25% each year. Patients Beyond Borders, a resource for medical travel, also reports that 1.2 million Americans leave the US for medical purposes annually and spend on average $3500 – $5000 USD per visit, including accommodations and travel. What’s more, they typically stay for more than ten days in their destination cities and will often bring a companion.

James Cercone, President and founder of Sanigest International, a leading international healthcare consultancy, presented a paper entitled Medical Tourism in the Caribbean: Fools Gold or Sunken Treasure? State of the Art and Lessons of Experience. In it he said the Caribbean offers an excellent opportunity for medical tourism because of its low procedural costs, low transportation costs due to its proximity for US medical tourists, diaspora tourism (where people return to their homeland or their descendants’ homeland) and for its’ attractive tropical destinations. The medical tourism market in the Caribbean has a USD $1.5 billion growth potential.

The problem, Cercone stated, was that the Caribbean countries weren’t capitalizing on their advantage. Medical tourists outspend normal tourists by up to ten times more. Further, medical procedures in Colombia on average cost just 10% of what they would cost in the United States. Given that the dollar is at its’ highest value ever in Colombia, it would be safe to assume that more people would be traveling to Colombia.

But that doesn’t seem to be what is happening today. In fact, according to Programa de Transformación Productiva, total visitors to Colombia for medical tourism have declined drastically. In the first quarter of 2015 (January to March), 6,916 people entered Colombia for medical reasons compared to 10,196 across the same period in 2014. A similar trend exists at the annual level with a drop from 49,299 in 2013 to 41,127 in 2014.

Medical Tourism in Barranquilla

Clinica Portazul is Barranquilla’s new, state-of-the-art medical facility catering to people from all over the world looking for high-quality medical care at a low overall cost. The medical facility is located in a tax-free zone and performs a broad range of procedures including cancer treatment, cardiac rehabilitation, emergency care for children and adults, diagnostic services, intensive care, hospitalization, and preventive medicine.

The lower costs and northern geographic location make Barranquilla an attractive destination. The city is only a 2.4 hour direct flight from Miami International Airport. Also, the fact that the city is at sea level should make it more competitive than hospitals in Bogota and Medellin due to the impact altitude has on blood oxygen levels which can be important in various surgical procedures. Next, unlike other Caribbean locations, Barranquilla has the infrastructure to handle a massive influx of visitors.

A Colombian startup, Clinical Travel, recently reported that 2000 users visit their website each month and that they generate at least 20 quotes for medical procedures in Colombia each week.

How can Barranquilla become a major city for medical tourism in the Caribbean?

Language is one of the drivers that helps increase the market in the Caribbean; for North Americans and even many Europeans, the ability to speak English with their medical professional is enormously important. Here is a list identifying the medical doctors, surgeons, and clinics that are registered and certified by the Department of Atlantico. Here is a link to the board certified cosmetic surgeons provided by the Sociedad Colombiana de Cirugía Plástica Estetica y Reconstructiva. The links are great information, but unfortunately, the information is only provided in Spanish. A client would have to contact each doctor or clinic to verify if there is bilingual staff available. Marketing strategies need to be created in English whenever possible.

Participating in medical tourism associations is essential for letting potential patients know that a market exists in the city. In my search, I couldn’t find any doctors or medical clinics listed in member directories. I identified three Colombian medical tourism companies registered with the Medical Tourism Association, but only two of the companies had functioning websites.

One of those companies is Go For Care, located in Bogota, which counsels potential clients interested in having their procedure performed in Colombia. The other is Medellin Health City, with several medical facilities listed and international accreditation. MHC reports having medical sites in the United States as well. International affiliations, like MHC, are a good way to increase referrals. It’s important for medical facilities to join these professional medical tourism associations to align themselves with quality care. Medical doctors should have their own accreditation specific to their specialty as well.

Also, certification is necessary to attract clientele who do extensive research through medical tourism associations. For example, there aren’t any medical facilities in Barranquilla that are accredited by the Joint Commission International. The Bahamas, Barbados, and Bermuda are the only countries with hospitals in the Caribbean certified as JCI-accredited facilities. Even though Barranquilla has a state-of-the-art medical facility, it will be tough to enter the medical tourism market without an international accreditation like JCI.

In summary, Barranquilla has many things to offer. New infrastructure plans are progressing to extend and widen roadways. International hotel chains are opening new sites in the city. Potential medical tourism visitors can benefit from the dollar value compared to the Colombian peso. The weather is constant, and there are beautiful beaches to visit close-by. The medical doctors and dentists that I have met so far speak a fair amount of English and can easily communicate. These are critical elements for Barranquilla to become a formidable player in the medical tourism market in the Caribbean.  Let’s get out there and take this market!