The buzz behind medical travel

Back to main story: What the future holds for Health City  

Experts in the international medical travel industry envision a time not far in the future when globe-trotting for anything from dental work to cancer therapy could become almost routine for exponentially more people. 

Though patients have traveled far and wide seeking cures for centuries, it has only been since about year 2000 that people like Irving Stackkpole, a pioneering consultant in facilitating such journeys, began to think of what he does as part of an actual industry. What brought it to that point, the Boston-based founder of Stackpole & Associates says, “was just the factors that you would expect.” 

Those factors, which might affect a boost in the Cayman economy in the near future, he says, are the same ones that shape so many other businesses in the 21st century: 

The Internet has matured as a means of instant communication and information gathering.  

Easy and low-cost international travel (particularly by air but also by cruise ship) is widely available. 

And what Stackpole calls “the standardization of healthcare procedures” has brought us to a time when medical training and practice are much the same in Rio deJaneiro as they are in Minneapolis, little different in Abu Dhabi than in London.  

“These developments,” he says, “have converged to make medical travel and medical tourism all the buzz.” 

In Cayman, Health City officials expect the institution to grow into a significant magnet for medical travelers. The institution is owned by Narayana Health, an operator of for-profit hospitals throughout India with headquarters in Bangalore, and Ascension Health, a nonprofit Catholic hospital company whose U.S. base is in St. Louis. 

The broad market the owners see for Health City include local residents, Caribbean-region residents who need quality care and, ultimately, medical travelers worldwide, but especially from the U.K. and the Americas. 

More than 2 million North Americans are thought to leave the U.S. and Canada each year for medical care abroad, according to Stackpole’s tabulations. He values their expenditures at between $32 billion and $35 billion a year. “And, yes,” the consultant says, “that’s only a small part of a $2.7 trillion economic sector, but it is growing.”  

Another important factor that plays into this trend is the rise in wealth and urban sophistication of middle-class residents of mega-cities around the world. For decades there have been superb doctors and medical facilities in Paris, Hamburg, Cape Town and Tokyo. But now cities in China, India and South Korea as well as Central America and the Middle East boast first-class centers of heart and brain surgery, stem-cell treatments and advanced orthopedic care. 

“If you think about it,” Stackpole says, “India and China each now have middle-class populations that are approaching the whole U.S. population. Medical travel is available to so many people around the world – and it’s growing all the time.” 

Elizabeth Ziemba, another medical travel consultant based in the Boston, area, believes Cayman is well situated to grow the business of medical travel, and Health City seems a good start. “With good, focused marketing,” she says, “the islands could draw medical visitors who might already have some familiarity with Grand Cayman as a vacation site.” 

Comfort with a medical travel destination is an important of the decision patients make when they choose to have cardiac bypass or orthopedic surgery at some place far from home. 

“It’s very hard to calculate the actual rate of growth of medical travel,” Ziemba says. “But it’s increasing year by year. I would think the Cayman Islands can leverage both the loyalty people have to its tourist industry and the familiarity financial services people have with the islands and build a strong medical travel base there.”