MEDELLÍN, Colombia – Medical tourism in Colombia was expected to generate revenues of US$150 million in 2010, according to the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism.
The government expects spending on health services marketed to international patients will reach about US$270 million in 2012.
Two Colombian hospitals were ranked in the top 10 of the 35 Latin American hospitals included in a healthcare quality study conducted in 2010 by the magazine América Economía, which covers Latin American issues.
The Fundación Santa Fe de Bogotá hospital ranked fourth behind third-place Clínica Las Condes and second-place Clínica Alemana, both located in Santiago, Chile. The Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein, in São Paulo, Brazil, was ranked No. 1. Fundación Valle del Lili hospital, in Cali, Colombia, was ranked No. 7.
The ranking also includes five healthcare centers in Medellín: the Hospital Universitario San Vicente de Paúl (18th), the Hospital Pablo Tobón Uribe (20th), the Hospital General de Medellín (22nd), the Clínica Las Américas (30th) and the Clínica León XIII (31st).
The majority of international patients receiving surgery in Medellín come from the United States, Spain, Germany, and the Netherlands, said Juan Esteban Sierra, plastic surgeon and president of the Colombian Society of Esthetic and Reconstructive Plastic Surgery of Medellín, a professional organization representing 110 of the about 130 specialists practicing in the capital city of the Antioquia department.
Lab-king Lam said that at age 10 he was diagnosed with bone cancer in his left femur and had to use crutches for the next six years.
He underwent surgery in his home country of Curaçao, after which he lost the use of three quarters of his femur and knee, causing doctors to fit him for a prosthetic.
In 2006, his prosthetic replacement broke and the only option available to him in Curaçao was amputation, he said. His medical insurer referred him to the Hospital Pablo Tobón Uribe, which is one of the 25 institutions the government of Medellín grouped together as the Medical and Dental Services Cluster in 2009.
This organization of healthcare institutions, which serves local and international patients, includes 14 clinics and hospitals, nine dental centers and two medical schools, said Carlos E. Cárdenas, the cluster’s director. The cluster served 4,736 overseas patients in 2009, he added.
Lam, 44, underwent surgery that included skin transplantation and the extending of the bone in his left leg by 38 centimeters (15 inches).
“Since I don’t have much thigh tissue, they had to use part of my back,” he said. “[Doctors] performed a skin graft so that the femur bone receives circulation and nourishment.”
International patients can buy an airplane ticket, undergo surgery, stay in Medellín for two weeks, go sightseeing, and spend 50% of what they would have to pay for the same surgery in their country of residence, Sierra said.
“My patients tell me that surgery in Medellín will cost 30% of what it costs in their countries [of residence],” he added.
Cardiovascular surgery, such as angioplasty or coronary bypass, can cost between US$7,100 and $20,300, while the price of cosmetic rhinoplasty can range between US$3,700 and $4,600, according to the Medical and Dental Services Cluster.
The price of each surgery includes preoperative exams, hospitalization, doctors’ fees, medicines, prostheses and postoperative consultations.
Sierra said all medical procedures require international patients to arrive in the country two or three days prior to their surgery and remain for at least 10 days after, so doctors can monitor their recovery.
Before travelling, patients can send forms and other documents by email, including medical records, photographs and the results of preliminary exams, Sierra added.
To date, none of Sierra’s patients have needed to return to Colombia, but he said there’s always the possibility a patient may experience complications a month after surgery.
In such cases, patients decide whether to return to Colombia or seek treatment locally.
“Consumer rights have yet to be formalized for medical tourism,” he said.
Cárdenas said most medical services requested by overseas patients arriving in Barranquilla, Bogotá, Bucaramanga, Cali, Cartagena and Medellín in 2008 were cardiovascular surgery (41%), general surgery (13%), bariatric surgery (10%), plastic surgery (6%), oncology (6%), orthopedics (4%) and dentistry (2%).
Half of all international patients in 2008 looked for quality healthcare and cutting-edge treatments, while 21% sought low prices, he added.
A report issued by the consulting firm McKinsey & Company for the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism in 2008 stated that 2.2% of Colombia’s international tourists visit the country for medical reasons.
The Andean nation received about 1.3 million international visitors in 2010, according to the government agency Proexport Colombia.
Medellín’s clinics invest in infrastructure
Investment in infrastructure from 2009 to 2012 by member organizations of the Medical and Dental Services Cluster is expected to reach US$250 million, Cárdenas said.
This initiative will add 45 operating rooms and 850 new hospital beds, he added. It will also create about 10,500 direct and indirect jobs.
“The healthcare quality of Medellín is very high, the services are excellent,” said Ana María Aristizábal, a 33 year-old dermatologist who has a practice in the El Poblado neighborhood of Medellín. “The training that professionals receive is equivalent to that of doctors and dentists in the most highly qualified countries.”