CHARLOTTE AMALIE, St. Thomas — While medical tourism is a fast-growing segment of the travel industry, two experts in the field posted some warning signs for Caribbean countries to consider before they hang out their shingles and tout their medical facilities and expertise.

And, in a video broadcast, a third speaker urged Caribbean countries to proceed with caution if they are contemplating the decriminalization and legalization of marijuana for medical purposes.

CTO medical tourism panelThe panel session on medical tourism, part of the Caribbean Tourism Organization’s (CTO) State of the Industry Conference last week, explored opportunities in medical, health and wellness offerings as a means of diversifying the tourism product.

Josef Woodman, CEO of Patients Beyond Borders, advised Caribbean countries to “get your own house in order before becoming the next medical tourism destination.”

He said solid infrastructure; strong policies; accredited hospitals, clinics and staff; and a strong reputation for medical safety are key assets that must be factored in to any decision to jump on the medical tourism bandwagon.

The leading Caribbean facilities to date are Doctors Hospital in Nassau, Cayman Health City in Grand Cayman, Barbados Fertility Clinic in Bridgetown and the Crossroads Clinic in Antigua, according to Woodman, who has toured more than 200 medical facilities in 35 counties, researching and vetting international health care options.

“The Caribbean has competition in this field,” he said. “Travelers go to Mexico for dental work, cosmetic surgery and weight loss. Costa Rica is known for its dentistry and cosmetic surgery, and Colombia is the center for cardiology, ophthalmology and burns.”

The Caribbean region has an advantage in being a close-in destination already known to U.S. leisure travelers, many of whom could elect to have medical procedures performed in the region and then recuperate at a resort.

Another issue that concerns travelers contemplating medical treatment in the Caribbean is whether U.S. insurance will cover the procedures.

According to Rory Johnston, a doctoral candidate at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia and a health services researcher in the medical tourism field, “It varies by company. This is a complex issue, and there is no universal acceptance or model.”

Medical procedures generally are 50% cheaper outside the U.S., so some patients will pay despite lack of insurance coverage, Johnson said.

Woodman pointed out that post-surgical care is a complicated matter, especially if patients do not notify their own doctors in advance of their plans or if records do not transfer between medical professionals before and after procedures.

Pot talk

The topic of legalizing or decriminalizing pot was also discussed during the session.

James Hospedales, executive director of the Caribbean Regional Public Health Agency, told his audience via a video address to “proceed with caution, given the significant adverse effects of cannabis smoking on health and social and occupational functioning, and especially so among youth.”

Hospedales cited recent data showing high usage of marijuana among secondary school students in the Caribbean and “no evidence that smoking marijuana was effective for treating any disease or the side effects of such treatments.”

In short, Hospedales saw very little future in smoking marijuana for medical purposes.

“This is not part of the medical tourism model,” he said. “If anything, it is considered a wellness strategy.”

When panel moderator Hugh Riley, secretary general of the CTO, was asked to state the CTO’s position on the legalization of marijuana, he reminded his audience that “it is up to the destinations in the Caribbean to determine if they want to use marijuana as a magnet to draw tourists. The CTO does not set national policy.”

An outspoken member of the audience, St. Croix Sen. Terrence Nelson, asserted that if marijuana were legal, “more people would come to the Caribbean.”

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