Gay Nagle Myers
Gay Nagle Myers

*logoPuerto Rico is aggressively pursuing a niche market that could prove to be an antidote for high medical costs, a new source of revenue for tour operators and a tonic for the island's arrival-number doldrums.

HimaHealth, a medical travel service provided by Puerto Rico hospital group Grupo Hima San Pablo, now offers Americans what it says is an affordable alternative to high health care costs.

"The public is fed up with the high costs of certain medical procedures," said Armando Rodriguez, Grupo Hima's executive vice president. "Last year more than 750,000 Americans flew outside of the U.S. to get medical care at lower costs." He said that number is projected to reach 110,000 by 2010.

India, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, New Zealand, Mexico and Costa Rica have benefitted from U.S. travelers searching for quality medical care at lower rates, he said.

A recent study published by the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions reported that 43% of Americans said they would be likely to travel out of their local area to undergo a test or procedure if it would cost 50% less.

Four in 10 leisure travelers cited lower costs as a reason for seeking offshore medical care, according to the 2009 National Travel Monitor, published by YPartnership/Yankelovich Inc.

And Puerto Rico wants a slice of that market.

"Puerto Rico has the best of both worlds," Rodriguez said. "We're subject to the same state and federal laws as the mainland U.S., and our HimaHealth hospitals are fully accredited by the Joint Commission," a watchdog organization that gives accreditation to medical facilities. HimaHealth staffs its facilities with U.S. board-certified physicians, he said.

HimaHealth currently is using two facilities near San Juan, one in Bayamon and another in Caguas, to treat patients from the U.S. mainland. Fifty physicians specialize in cardiovascular surgery, orthopedic treatments, neurosurgery, spine surgery, oncology and pediatrics, Rodriguez said.

Two more facilities are in the works, one in San Juan and another south of the capital, in Palmas del Mar.

The cost of treatments at these facilities is 50% to 75% less than in mainland medical facilities, according to Rodriguez.

"The organization has been treating the Caribbean region for 15 years, and we have treated thousands of patients," said Milton Segarra, executive director of HimaHealth, who previously served as executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. and secretary of the Department of Economic Development and Commerce.

"In addition to our medical accreditations and the quality of medical care available, other benefits include Puerto Rico's easy air access to the U.S., use of the same currency and the fact that no passport is needed," Segarra said.

While HimaHealth handles all medical aspects of the traveler's case, the ancillary needs such as air travel and pre- and post-surgery accommodations can be a source of revenue for tour operators and agents.

Segarra hopes to link up with specific operators to package the air and land components in conjunction with the medical treatments.

"I see a potential niche market opening up for operators who want to work with us on the travel-related aspects of this medical tourism segment," he said.

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