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Come for a new hip, stay for SeaWorld? San Diego bets on medical tourism

Ocean Beach pier in San Diego. Experts say creating a medical hub is complex.
Gregory Bull/Associated Press
Ocean Beach pier in San Diego. Experts say creating a medical hub is complex.

SAN DIEGO — It’s got sun, sand, top-flight biomedical research, and highly rated hospitals. But can San Diego really compete with the world-renowned medical centers in Boston to become a hub for medical tourism?

City leaders hope so. They recently launched a marketing initiative — funded mostly by a philanthropist — to attract patients from across the country and around the world. The pitch: Get your hip replaced or your cancer treated by top specialists — and then take your family to Legoland or SeaWorld.

The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio are also bidding to become hot destinations for patient care. Boston hospitals, of course, already draw wealthy patients from the world over. None of those venues can match San Diego’s weather, or even, arguably, its wealth of family-friendly tourist attractions. But experts say it takes a lot more than slick marketing to create a true medical tourism hub.

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“We have sun. We have beach. We have hotel. We have hospital. We have doctor. Throw them all in a bowl and call it medical tourism?” said Maria Todd, a business consultant. “No, it doesn’t work like that.”

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“It’s a tough sell,” said Josef Woodman, who runs Patients Beyond Borders, a yearly publication that analyzes the medical tourism industry.

Among the many issues: Local hotels need to be equipped appropriately to handle recuperating patients. Hospitals need to train doctors to be culturally sensitive to patients from different parts of the world. They may need more interpreters. Or special prayer rooms. Or luxury cars to ferry patients to and from the hospital. Their cafeterias need to brush up on global flavors and culinary favorites, as well as faith-based dietary restrictions.

Just building out that infrastructure can cost as much as $1 million for each culture or part of the world a medical tourism campaign targets, Woodman said.

San Diego, however, is undaunted. City boosters have looked at the competition, and they like their odds.

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“If we can get people to recognize that we offer exceptional health care — well, would you rather go to San Diego for a couple weeks in December, or Minnesota?” said Joe Terzi, CEO of the San Diego Tourism Authority.

San Diego certainly has some top-notch hospital systems, including the University of California San Diego, Sharp HealthCare, Scripps Health, and Rady Children’s Hospital. It also boasts private practices like Human Longevity, which offers comprehensive diagnostics (at top dollar) from genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter.

Such services might allow the city to position itself as a hub for “well care” — helping patients avoid medical crisis. Civic leaders are also pondering a campaign that would highlight certain highly ranked medical specialties.

Local health care centers generally back the medical tourism campaign. In fact, some already have international reach. Sharp, for instance, for years has run a Global Patient Services division that evacuates patients who need emergency medical care abroad.

But none of the hospitals is putting up any cash — at least not yet — to boost the marketing program. A spokesman for Sharp said that it’s simply too early to comment on the initiative. And the campaign, dubbed DestinationCare San Diego, hasn’t laid out much of a plan beyond Internet marketing.

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While the term “medical tourism” can be a touch pejorative — it often refers to cheaper cosmetic surgery and dental care offered in countries like Mexico or Malaysia — it has a different meaning in countries like the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom. Patients come here for high-end specialized care, usually to treat cancer, heart disease, or rare conditions.

Patients from China and the Middle East, in particular, are often wealthy enough to pay US prices out of pocket — and they tend to perceive stateside care as world-class. But when they think of top US hospitals, they’re usually not thinking of UC San Diego.

“And there’s your challenge: Why come to San Diego instead of Harvard, or Mayo, or Cleveland Clinic?” said Keith Pollard, managing editor of the International Medical Travel Journal. Patients travel to hospitals based on reputation, not locale, he said.

“What’s totally irrelevant is the destination,” Pollard said. “The environment, the attraction of the destination — some cities have tried to sell themselves on that basis, but at the end of the day, that’s the last thing that people are interested in.”

For now, San Diego is setting a modest goal of simple public awareness.

“We don’t think we’re going to compete with MD Anderson or Mayo Clinic — they have worldwide reputations and names they’ve developed,” Terzi said. “We’re really just trying to elevate the opportunity for people to understand that San Diego is a center of health care.”

Meghana Keshavan
can be reached at Meghana.Keshavan
@statnews.com
. Follow her on twitter@megkesh.