The COVID-19 pandemic is reducing medical tourism revenues


Sanford Health, a nonprofit health system based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, will continue to expand its operations internationally, said Dr. Luis Garcia, president of Sanford’s clinical division. Sanford said in 2018 it would expand to Costa Rica, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa and Vietnam, and those projects are still ongoing and on track despite the disruption from COVID-19. , said a spokesperson. It operates in nine countries, including China, Germany and Ghana.

Sanford’s international connections have provided a buffer during the ongoing staffing shortage, allowing it to tap into labor pipelines around the world while sending its residents overseas, Garcia said.

“We have always said that it was important for us to develop ours. For our US residents, it’s a plus that they have international experience, but for those who come here, it provides exposure to the culture of Sanford,” he said. “Even if they can come as substitutes for two or three months in highly sought-after medical fields like rheumatology and dermatology, that meets the need we have.

While international health systems footprints have helped providers overcome staffing shortages, declining profitable medical tourism revenues have drained funding for capital projects, service improvements and investments in charitable care. , said Vequist. The roughly $200 billion allocated through the COVID-19 Provider Relief Fund has mitigated the impact of lost medical tourism revenue, but that funding is shrinking, economists have said.

“2019 was a banner year for medical tourism and of course we had this drop because of COVID,” said Vequist, who analyzed data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the International Trade Administration and of the Transportation Security Administration. “For hospitals, medical tourism offers good margins since care is almost always paid for in cash.”

The number of incoming Cleveland Clinic international patients treated was halved from 9,150 in 2019 to 4,939 in 2020. Volume rebounded to 7,686 patients in 2021.

“Clearly, the pandemic has done no one a favor when it comes to travel and health care,” said Dr. Curtis Rimmerman, president of international operations at the Cleveland Clinic. “We quickly understood that our priority was to take care of domestic patients with COVID. But things have calmed down and volumes have rebounded significantly in Florida and northeast Ohio as air travel reopens.

Health systems have steadily increased their marketing budgets targeting foreign patients. Sanford, for example, recently launched a partnership with the Manitoba government in Winnipeg, Canada, where there is a backlog of neurosurgery patients being referred to Sanford, Garcia said.

“The idea is that over time we start to strengthen the relationship,” he said. “For us, this is a great opportunity to help fill the backlog that the Canadian government has for certain services.

Mayo Clinic, Cedars-Sinai, Johns Hopkins Medicine, MD Anderson, Sanford and Cleveland Clinic are among the many health systems that attract patients from the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe, Canada, the Middle East and ‘Central America.

Many Latin American and Caribbean residents travel to Florida for care at the Cleveland Clinic’s network of five hospitals in the state. The network offers cardiac, vascular, thoracic, digestive, urological and transplant care for adults and children, Rimmerman said.

“There is a cultural comfort zone for some of these patients (in Florida),” he said.

Cleveland Clinic also has facilities in Toronto, Abu Dhabi and London. The health system opened a 184-bed hospital in central London in March, its second facility in the city.

Sanford seeks to help countries like Ghana, where it helped set up the country’s first electronic health record, establish sustainable, quality medical care, Garcia said.

But it may be more expensive to fund international operations due to the pandemic, researchers said.

The cost of international marketing and the complexity of dealing with foreign consumers has increased dramatically amid COVID-19, Rush Health researchers and medical tourism consultants wrote in a 2021 peer-reviewed article. The pandemic has been a tipping point for providers to develop more sophisticated telehealth strategies to reach patients abroad, the researchers noted.

While telehealth has grown rapidly domestically during the pandemic, international restrictions may limit its reach.

“In response to these challenges, academic medical centers will re-examine their strategies in foreign markets and those with significant investments in offshore locations will hedge their bets by reducing their exposure to these foreign operations and locations,” the study said.

Neither the Cleveland Clinic nor Sanford plan to slow down their international expansion plans or outreach to attract medical tourists, executives said.

“We anticipate an increase over the next five years in international patient volumes,” Rimmerman said. “Our goals from an international perspective are solid.”


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