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There's at least one niche market that managed to escape the effects of the recession: hospitals that treat patients from abroad. Last year, some 400,000 people visited the U.S. for health care, spending nearly $5 billion, according to one estimate. It's a fast-growing market. Some hospitals in the U.S. are scrambling to compete for these international patients, and nowhere more so than in Miami.
NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN: Today, they call it medical tourism. But long before it had a catchy name, Miami was a health care destination for patients from the Caribbean and Latin America. In the Turks and Caicos, a British possession north of Haiti, Carol Stubbs says she and her neighbors regularly come to Miami for all kinds of reasons.
Ms. CAROL STUBBS: Shopping, vacation and fun, you know. Come over, go back home. They come over to Miami in the morning, and go back in the afternoon.
ALLEN: So, when she was diagnosed with cancer in 2005, the 52-year-old Stubbs says it was only natural that she came to Miami for treatment. She says her doctors referred her to Baptist Health.
Ms. STUBBS: I had surgery. I was just, like, really bad. I had three major surgeries. It saved my life. I was in intensive care twice. It was a miracle, you see. I'm serious. It's a miracle.
ALLEN: Stubbs makes the 80-minute plane ride now every three or four months for follow-up visits. After intensive chemotherapy, she's now receiving a course of radiation. As an international patient, she has lots of company. Last year, some 12,000 foreign patients were treated at Baptist Health, accounting for more than 10 percent of the hospital's total care population.
In recent years, medical tourism has boomed among Americans who travel overseas for everything from hip replacements to liver transplants at prices they can afford. At the same time, inbound medical tourism, foreign patients coming to the U.S., has also taken off.
George Foyo of Baptist Health says while Americans typically look overseas for health care because of cost concerns, foreign patients come to U.S. hospitals for a different reason.
Mr. GEORGE FOYO (Baptist Health): The tourism we get is really patients who are looking for high quality of care that they cannot find in their home countries.
ALLEN: The competition for international patients among hospitals in Miami is intense. To help build its ties with patients and doctors, Baptist Health recently opened an office in the Cayman Islands. And Foyo says it has plans for offices in other Caribbean and Latin American countries.
Mr. FOYO: Every major hospital system in South Florida is competing with us for the same markets, and that's why we are aggressively pursuing local presence in many countries because that is ultimately necessary for continued growth.
ALLEN: Competition for international patients is great because the market is so lucrative. A significant amount of the business is cash - patients who pay their own way.
But another development that has fueled the growth of medical tourism in this country is the growing availability of health insurance in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Roland Rodriguez oversees international medicine at Jackson Memorial, another Miami hospital with many foreign patients.
Mr. ROLAND RODRIGUEZ (International Medicine, Jackson Memorial Hospital): More and more mid-to-upper-class Latin Americans and people in the Caribbean are choosing to be insured to leave their countries when they want to make that choice. They pay a premium for it. And if something bad happens to them, they can call their insurance company and say, I want to go to the U.S.
ALLEN: It's not just hospitals in Miami that are competing for these international patients. Prestigious institutions like Cleveland Clinic, Mayo and Johns Hopkins have long catered to patients from abroad. And hospitals in Houston led by Methodist Healthcare have worked to market that region as an international medical destination. It's a model now being adopted by Miami. Rodriguez of Jackson Memorial is working with the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau on a similar effort. Hospitals here hope to build on the region's natural advantage as a gateway to Latin America, with good weather, direct flights and a largely bilingual population.
At the University of Miami Health System, Eduardo de Marchena says his institution's outreach is a natural extension of work the university has done now for 40 years. It's trained thousands of doctors who now practice in Latin America.
Dr. EDUARDO DE MARCHENA (University of Miami Health System): You know, when you need help, you always call your friend. And basically, we've established those relationships throughout the years. And we use those relationships for that kind of referral.
ALLEN: The University of Miami Health System is now working in Colombia, Trinidad and other countries on partnerships with local hospitals that will further build its network of relationships and its medical tourism business.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.