NAPLES — The idea that Naples could develop a foothold in the medical tourism industry is gaining traction among elected and health-care leaders.
"I think it's something we are interested in. It is something we want to grow," said Naples Mayor John Sorey, a member of Collier County's Tourism Development Council.
He's been talking to hoteliers in the city about marketing opportunities with medical entities. Some boutique hotels are set up already with suites to accommodate guests who would be recuperating from medical procedures, he said. They also bring family.
"Frequently, you get more than one room (booked)," Sorey said. "It is something we have to build."
A medical tourism committee established by the Collier County Convention and Visitors Bureau is brainstorming how the region can impress potential patients who are researching their options.
"I do think it is huge," said Cathy Christopher, a committee member and director of sales for the Inn on Fifth. "For knee and hip replacement, wouldn't you rather hobble around here rather than the ice of Chicago?"
But what would it take to make Naples stand out against other Florida communities that also have the appeal of beaches, upscale restaurants, along with arts and entertainment, as selling points to medical tourists?
Beyond Florida are worldwide destinations for less-expensive cosmetic, orthopedic or other elective procedures in Costa Rica, India, Thailand, Cuba, Malaysia, Brazil and elsewhere.
The Deloitte Center for Health Solutions reports that the medical tourism industry outside the U.S. has tremendous implications domestically for health-care providers and insurers. Deloitte estimated in 2009 that medical tourism is recovering from the recession and the industry will see a 35 percent annual growth rate outside the U.S.
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Phil McCabe, the owner of the Inn on Fifth, said new hotel suites under construction on Fifth Avenue South could cater to longer stays but he hasn't explored marketing to medical tourists.
"I have no concept for the growth of that," McCabe said.
He thinks more people will leave the U.S. for medical care in Colombia, Mexico or elsewhere because it is a fraction of the cost and the quality of care is improving in countries that have developed medical tourism markets.
"It's wide open," he said, adding that he's not dismissing Naples' potential to attract medical tourists. "But do I get excited about it? No. I get excited about other markets. Snowbirds, tourists from Europe and corporate groups. That is big business in Naples."
At this point, the local medical tourism committee is reaching out to local physicians, medical centers and hospitals to build a database for marketing, said Jack Wert, the county's tourism director.
"Another big piece of this is medical meetings. It is a big opportunity," Wert said. "We think the real potential has already been demonstrated, like with Arthrex, which brings thousands of doctors and scientists here."
Naples-based Arthrex, a manufacturer of orthopedic devices, is projected to bring 10,000 visitors to Naples this year for medical education geared toward surgeons and others in the orthopedic industry. Those programs will create $10 million in tourism spending locally, said Lisa Gardiner, Arthrex spokeswoman.
This past spring, Arthrex founder and president Reinhold Schmieding shared with local leaders what he sees as essential components for medical tourism in Collier, both in medical education and treatment.
"To be globally competitive in medical treatment tourism, our medical community needs to invest in state-of-the-art outpatient surgery facilities and technology to offer the least invasive medical care for affluent patients from the U.S. and internationally," Schmieding said Friday in a statement. "Medical education tourism provides an even greater economic impact opportunity since medical education visitors occupy a hotel bed instead of a hospital bed and spend more on retail, real estate and recreation than a recuperating patient."
Tourism director Wert said once a database with hotels, specialists and other medical entities has been put together, a next step could be electronic newsletters and a link on the county's tourism website, where users could learn about Naples' medical amenities.
E-newsletters could target primary-care physicians in the Midwest and Northeast, who could refer patients to specialists in Naples, Wert said.
"We're not sure this is an advertising opportunity. We really think it's more direct contacts with primary care physicians (elsewhere)," he said. "Advertising may be down the line and public relations."
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Some specialists in Collier have been attracting medical tourists for some time on their own, or medical device manufacturers have been doing it on their behalf on company websites that users can search for specialists based on ZIP codes.
Dr. Kriston Kent, a longtime facial plastic surgeon in Collier, said his core practice of wealthy residents have homes elsewhere and bring out-of-town referrals to him.
"Word of mouth, obviously, that works great," Kent said.
He doesn't advertise out of the region but his website brings inquiries and his staff will arrange hotel rooms for patients, he said.Kent said the least likely time when someone will want to travel to an exotic location is when he or she is in recovery from surgery. On the flip side, getting away from the stresses of home or if privacy is desired, traveling for medical procedures is a way to go, he said.
"I think it's intriguing and I think it probably is a thing of the future because people like to multi-task," he said.
The physicians with Specialists in Urology got a head start in medical tourism because the group ventured into robotic surgery ahead of competitors and advertised nationally and also got patients abroad, said Dr. William Figlesthaler, a partner with the group.
In 2007, he and one of his partners, Dr. Michael D'Angelo, were featured on Bravo for robotic surgery for prostate cancer, which gave them national exposure; another boost came when talk show host Jay Leno spoofed the practice and an advertisement for robotic treatment of prostate cancer.
Figlesthaler said he's always envisioned Naples as a medical destination.
"It's beautiful, it's easy to get to and there's a lot of good cosmetic surgeons and cancer surgeons but I think ultimately the secret is better collaboration between physicians that aren't employees of the hospitals," he said. "Hospitals have to market the physicians and not the hospitals. Who is going to leave New York and (specialized) centers and come down here? They come down here because of the specialists. If the entire area becomes a medical destination, we all win."