San Diego’s new sell­ing point: med­i­cal tourism

City’s ma­jor hospi­tals make a push to at­tract out-of-town pa­tients.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Lori Weis­berg

SAN DIEGO — Plan­ning a visit to San Diego? Hit the beaches. Check. Spend a day at the zoo or a theme park. Check. Sam­ple craft beer. Check. Book a stay at a lo­cal hospi­tal for cut­ting-edge car­diac or can­cer treat­ment?

For decades, San Diego has traded on its reputation for year-round sun, a cap­ti­vat­ing coast­line and fam­i­lyfriendly at­trac­tions to woo tourists. But en­tic­ing vis­i­tors with the prom­ise of life­sav­ing treat­ments by ac­claimed physi­cians and hospi­tals has never been of­fered up as a sell­ing point. Un­til now. A coali­tion of civic, tourism and busi­ness lead­ers, joined by San Diego’s four ma­jor hospi­tals, is launch­ing a med­i­cal tourism ini­tia­tive they hope will draw more well-heeled pa­tients and their fam­i­lies to the re­gion than any one hospi­tal could at­tract on its own.

Dubbed Desti­na­tionCare San Diego, the ef­fort has been seeded with an ini­tial in­vest­ment of $150,000, in­clud­ing $100,000 from busi­ness­man and long­time phi­lan­thropist Malin Burn­ham, who has been guiding the nascent ef­fort for the last sev­eral years.

The hope is to tap into an in­dus­try val­ued at as much as $100 bil­lion glob­ally by trum­pet­ing San Diego’s al­ready highly re­garded med­i­cal providers and life sci­ences re­search — and in the process at­tract vis­i­tors who oth­er­wise might not con­sider trav­el­ing here.

The competition, though, is stiff, given the el­e­vated pro­file of some of the na­tion’s most rec­og­nized names in health­care — such as the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., Cleve­land Clinic in Ohio, MD An­der­son Can­cer Cen­ter in Hous­ton and Me­mo­rial Sloan Ket­ter­ing Can­cer Cen­ter in New York City.

What sets San Diego apart, the ef­fort’s most ar-

dent sup­port­ers say, is the will­ing­ness of the top med­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions — Sharp Health­care, Scripps Health, UC San Diego Health and Rady Chil­dren’s Hospi­tal — to col­lab­o­rate, no easy feat in a highly com­pet­i­tive arena.

Desti­na­tionCare, they also point out, marks the in­ter­sec­tion of two of San Diego’s largest eco­nomic en­gines: tourism and health­care.

“Med­i­cal tourism in a lot of peo­ple’s minds is ‘Where can I get in­ex­pen­sive care?’ This isn’t about get­ting a new set of teeth for half price,” said Tom Gehring, for­mer chief ex­ec­u­tive of the San Diego County Med­i­cal So­ci­ety and in­terim ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of Desti­na­tionCare. “It’s about ‘Why should I go to San Diego for the best pos­si­ble treat­ment on the West Coast?’

“We as a re­gion have an in­cred­i­ble syn­ergy that the var­i­ous other places can’t have. Given my choice of go­ing to Rochester in the win­ter­time or San Diego, that’s a no-brainer.”

Desti­na­tionCare is in its ear­li­est stage, but back­ers hope that the mar­ket­ing ef­fort will not only help en­rich the hospi­tals, but also re­sult in more spend­ing at lo­cal ho­tels.

Some of the ini­tial fund­ing for the pro­gram, in ad­di­tion to Burn­ham’s $100,000 in seed money, has come from the city’s Tourism Mar­ket­ing Dis­trict, which re­lies on a 2% ho­tel room sur­charge for its rev­enue.

What re­mains to be seen, though, is whether hospi­tals will be en­thu­si­as­tic enough about the ef­fort to con­trib­ute fi­nan­cially. For now, they are tak­ing a wait-and-see ap­proach un­til it can be proved there is a real re­turn on in­vest­ment.

Rady Chil­dren’s Hospi­tal al­ready says on its web­site that it is a “world­wide des­ti­na­tion for the treat­ment of rare and com­plex med­i­cal con­di­tions in chil­dren.” Like­wise, UC San Diego Health states that it is “known as a cen­ter for lead­ing-edge medicine and out­stand­ing clin­i­cal pro­grams.”

Oth­ers tell mov­ing tales of grate­ful pa­tients, such as base­ball Hall of Famer Rod Carew, who cred­its Scripps Health with bring­ing him “back from death’s door” by im­plant­ing a me­chan­i­cal pump in his chest af­ter a mas­sive heart at­tack.

Al­though serv­ing in­ter­na­tional pa­tients is typ­i­cally viewed as more lu­cra­tive, San Diego plans to fo­cus its med­i­cal tourism ef­forts ini­tially on pa­tients within the U.S.

But it’s un­clear how will­ing Amer­i­cans are to travel within the U.S. for treat­ment and whether the eco­nom­ics are sus­tain­able, said Josef Wood­man, founder of Pa­tients Be­yond Borders, a re­source for global med­i­cal travel.

“I don’t think any­one right now has the keys to the king­dom on do­mes­tic med­i­cal tourism,” he said. “San Diego has some qual­ity hospi­tals and clin­ics, but I’ve seen a lot of folks belly up to the bar and fail. There is an un­tapped mar­ket, but it’s a tough one be­cause a lot of peo­ple are not will­ing to travel for their care and set­tle for the spe­cial­ist that their [gen­eral prac­ti­tioner] rec­om­mends in their own back­yard.”

Burn­ham is con­vinced that by band­ing to­gether the San Diego med­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions will see far more im­pres­sive re­sults than work­ing on their own.

“We can bring hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars of new med­i­cal spend­ing to San Diego that the hospi­tals aren’t get­ting on their own,” he said. “So, sure, they’ve got their own sys­tems. But they’re in the back of the air­plane — we’re in the front of the plane.”

Howard Lipin San Diego Union-Tri­bune

SCRIPPS HEALTH is among the part­ners in the San Diego med­i­cal tourism ef­fort. Above, Dr. Julie Steele ex­am­ines breast tis­sue at Scripps Clinic in La Jolla.

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