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Will Colombia's Gamble On Medical Tourism Pay Off?

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Will Colombia's Gamble On Medical Tourism Pay Off?

Will Colombia's Gamble On Medical Tourism Pay Off?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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And now, let's talk about the growing business of medical tourism. That's traveling to another country for medical procedures, often saving money along the way. Countries like India and Thailand have developed reputations as destinations for patients looking for surgical bargains and now, countries closer to the United States want to break into that market. Andrew Fishman traveled to one of them, Colombia, and filed this report.

ANDREW FISHMAN, BYLINE: Let's go back in time a few years. The global economy was booming, and analysts were saying Americans were pouring out of the country for medical procedures. One projection said the number would reach almost 11 million annually by 2013. Colombia, which was seeing huge improvements in safety and tourism, decided that they wanted in on the action, too. They've been building facilities specifically designed for medical tourists.

SERGIO FRANCO: Everything is new. Everything is new.

FISHMAN: Dr. Sergio Franco is the head of cardiovascular surgery at San Vicente de Rionegro. It's a new hospital, less than 2 years old.

FRANCO: It's amazing.

FISHMAN: San Vicente de Rionegro sits on a country road in the lush, green hills outside of downtown Medellin. The middle of nowhere, really, except that it's only a few minutes' drive from the city's international airport, perfect for patients flying in from abroad. The facility is massive, but San Vicente only focuses on six surgical specialties ranging from organ transplants to cosmetic procedures, all of which are popular with medical tourists.

FRANCO: If you want to be one of the best in the world, you have to start with a facility like this one.

FISHMAN: Franco says foreign patients come here to get the same quality services that they'd find in the U.S., but with a more caring approach and at a fraction of the cost. One patient told me a heart surgery he needed would have cost as much as $286,000 in Houston, Texas. In Colombia, it was only $26,000. Those savings also attracted Jeff Daniels to Colombia. He's a Brooklynite in need of some serious dental work, and his insurance wouldn't cover it.

JEFF DANIELS: I'm getting a dental implant and several crowns. I got two root canals.

FISHMAN: And the list keeps going. This is his second trip to Medellin in a month, and he'll be back a few more times before he's through. On his first trip, Daniels was kind of nervous. He doesn't speak Spanish, and he'd heard about drug cartels and crime, not to mention the ongoing internal conflict that's killed hundreds of thousands of people, mostly civilians.

DANIELS: I expected it to be kind of like a war zone. Just the opposite was true. I find it to be no more dangerous than New York.

FISHMAN: And that is exactly the message that Colombia wants to get across. They've handed out big tax breaks, and have pumped millions into ad campaigns like this one.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay.

FISHMAN: As a result, tourism is way up, and medical tourism is growing, too. New hospitals and clinics are popping up all over the country, but the numbers aren't as promising as analysts projected back in 2008.

K. ECKLAND: From what I've been looking at, less than 20,000 people a year. This is not millions of people.

FISHMAN: That's K. Eckland. She's an American nurse who has interviewed hundreds of surgeons in Colombia and written three guide books on medical tourism. She thinks the option to go abroad for people without health insurance can save the lives, but she's also worried about the cost to Colombians.

ECKLAND: When you attract your top surgeons to an exclusive destination, tourist facility, you've also robbed everybody else of the opportunity to be treated by the best and the brightest.

FISHMAN: Nonetheless, these types of projects keep moving forward in Colombia. And, at least for now, there's no telling if their bets will pay off.

For NPR News, I'm Andrew Fishman.

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