Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Headlines, Health, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

COSTA RICA: Beaches, Jungles – and Operating Rooms

Daniel Zueras

SAN JOSÉ, Apr 15 2009 (IPS) - With traditional tourism hit hard by the global recession, Costa Rica is seeking to draw foreign visitors by offering low-cost, high-quality health care – especially targeting people from the United States, where the same medical procedures can cost up to four times more.

Health tourism is growing around the world due to the high costs of private medical services in industrialised countries, which have prompted many to look to developing countries in search of good quality, inexpensive care.

More than 40 million people in the United States (population 306 million) have no health insurance, which makes them an attractive potential market for medical tourism countries like India, Thailand, Malaysia, the United Arab Emirates, Argentina, Brunei, Cuba, Colombia, Hong Kong, South Africa, Hungary, and more recently, Costa Rica.

Costa Rica has the advantage of proximity to the United States, good air connections between the two countries, political and social stability, and low crime rates.

Most sought-after here are eye surgery and dental treatment, followed by plastic surgery, orthopedic procedures, neurosurgery and gynecological care, according to government statistics. Foreign patients generally pay 30 to 60 percent less than what they would pay back home.

But in some cases, such as coronary bypass surgery, costs in the United States are four times higher than in Costa Rica.

A 2008 study by the Deloitte & Touche international accounting and consulting firm estimated that the world market for medical tourism is around sixty billion dollars and could grow to 100 billion dollars by 2010.

Last year, some 100,000 foreign visitors came to Costa Rica – known as the Switzerland of Central America – to undergo medical procedures in private hospitals, spending roughly 60 million dollars, according to private sector estimates that are accepted by the authorities.

Tourism Minister Ricardo Benavides told IPS that patients do not generally declare their reason for travelling to Costa Rica, which means that estimates of what they spend on health care visits are obtained from the hospitals and clinics themselves.

Benavides said there is great potential for growth, pointing out that health travel to Costa Rica expanded 20 percent last year, to 1.5 percent of the global medical tourism industry.

He also noted that for medical travel, the global economic crisis that originated in the United States is a key ally.

"It is clearly more economical for them to get treatment in Costa Rica than in their own countries," and the crisis has driven more and more people from all socioeconomic levels to seek less expensive health care abroad, said the minister.

Visitors often combine health with recreation. On average, patients and their families stay for nearly two weeks in Costa Rica after the medical treatment, at a total cost of just over 3,000 dollars – much less than they would have spent on the operation alone in their own countries.

The government of Óscar Arias plans to foment this kind of tourism by means of actions by the ministries of tourism, health and foreign trade, including tourist publicity campaigns abroad and efforts towards increasing the number of health centres in the country with the international credentials necessary to draw foreign patients.

The Association for the Promotion of Costa Rican Medicine (PROMED) was also created, consisting of six health consortiums, three private hospitals, and several local universities and hotels.

The hospitals that form part of PROMED are accredited by the U.S.-based Joint Commission International (JCI) – obligatory credentials for health care institutions interested in breaking into the medical tourism market. Several U.S. insurers have already signed alliances with the hospitals.

But the fact that only three medical centres have been accredited by the JCI is a problem, because if demand for treatment by medical tourists continues to grow, it will outstrip Costa Rica’s capacity to provide services.

Hospital hotels have begun to crop up over the last year, offering operating and recovery rooms along with the services of a five star hotel.

In the World Health Organisation's (WHO) ranking of the world's health systems, Costa Rica ranks 36th, ahead of the United States, which ranks 37th.

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