COVID-19 pandemic hit medical tourism revenue

Sanford Health, a non-profit health care provider based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, will continue to expand internationally, said Dr. Luis Garcia, president of Sanford’s clinical division. In 2018, Sanford said it would expand into Costa Rica, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa and Vietnam, and those projects are still in the works despite disruptions due to COVID-19, a spokesman said. It operates in nine countries including China, Germany and Ghana.

Garcia said Sanford’s international relations provided a buffer during an ongoing staffing shortage, allowing it to draw on staffing resources around the world as well as send its residents overseas.

“We have always said that it is important for us to grow our own. For our US residents, it’s a plus that they have international experience, but for those who come here, it provides an opportunity to experience the culture of Sanford, ”he said. “Even though they may come as a locum tenens within two or three months in high-demand medical fields such as rheumatology and dermatology, which satisfies our needs.”

While the international presence of health systems has helped health care providers cope with a shortage of staff, the fall in lucrative medical tourism revenue has drained funding for capital projects, service improvements and investment in philanthropic care, Weqvist said. The roughly $200 billion allocated through the COVID-19 Provider Relief Fund has blunted the loss of medical tourism revenue, but that funding is shrinking, economists say.

“It was such a big year for medical tourism in 2019, and then of course we had this downturn because of COVID,” said Weqvist, who analyzed data from the US Bureau of Economic Analysis, the International Trade Administration and the Transportation Security Administration. “For hospitals, medical tourism offers excellent returns as treatment is almost always paid for in cash.”

The number of international patients treated at Cleveland Clinic has halved from 9,150 in 2019 to 4,939 in 2020. In 2021, the volume increased to 7686 patients.

“It is clear that the pandemic has not benefited anyone in terms of travel and healthcare,” said Dr. Curtis Rimmerman, chairman of international operations at the Cleveland Clinic. “We quickly realized that our priority was taking care of COVID home patients. But the situation has calmed down, and with the resumption of air travel, volumes have increased significantly in Florida and northeast Ohio.”

Health care systems are steadily increasing their marketing budgets targeting international patients. Sanford, for example, recently launched a partnership with the government of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, which has a backlog of neurosurgical patients being referred to Sanford, Garcia said.

“The idea is that over time we will start to strengthen the relationship,” he said. “This is a great opportunity for us to help with 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 healthcare systems that attract patients from the Caribbean, Latin America, Europe, Canada, the Middle East and Central America.

Many Latin American and Caribbean residents come to Florida for treatment at the Cleveland Clinic’s network of five hospitals in the state. The network offers heart, vascular, thoracic, digestive, urology, and adult and pediatric transplants, Rimmerman said.

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

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

Garcia said Sanford hopes to help countries like Ghana, where it helped create the country’s first electronic health record, create sustainable and quality health care.

But the pandemic could make it more expensive to fund international operations, the researchers said.

The cost of international marketing and the difficulty of managing foreign consumers have skyrocketed amid COVID-19, Rush Health researchers and medical tourism consultants wrote in a 2021 peer-reviewed paper. The researchers noted that the pandemic was a tipping point for the development of more sophisticated telemedicine strategies to reach patients overseas.

While telemedicine expanded rapidly domestically during the pandemic, international restrictions could limit its reach.

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

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

“We expect an increase in the number of international patients over the next five years,” Rimmerman said. “Our goals are strong internationally.”

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