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SAN DIEGO — It’s got sun, sand, top-flight biomedical research, and highly rated hospitals. But can San Diego really become a hub for medical tourism?

City leaders sure hope so. They recently launched a marketing initiative — funded mostly by a local philanthropist — that aims 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 — though they can’t promise any sparkling beaches. But experts say it takes a lot more than a slick marketing campaign to create a true medical tourism hub.

“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 who focuses on health tourism strategy. “No, it doesn’t work like that.”

“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 that need to be addressed: Local hotels need to be equipped appropriately to handle patients recuperating from various types of treatments. Hospitals need to train their doctors to be culturally sensitive to patients coming 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.

“Would you rather go to San Diego for a couple weeks in December, or Minnesota?”

Joe Terzi, San Diego Tourism Authority

“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, president and CEO of the San Diego Tourism Authority.

San Diego certainly has some top-notch hospital systems, including 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 (though they haven’t yet decided which ones to tout).

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.

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 U.S., Germany, and the U.K. 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 U.S. prices out of pocket — and tend to perceive that that stateside care is world-class. But when they think of top U.S. 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.

“Why come to San Diego instead of Harvard, or Mayo, or Cleveland Clinic?”

Keith Pollard, International Medical Travel Journal.

“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.”

Funding for DestinationCare San Diego comes largely from local philanthropist Malin Burnham. The city plans to spend $150,000 in the coming year and another $250,000 annually thereafter.

For inspiration, campaign organizers might well turn to Las Vegas, which has built a medical tourism industry by zeroing in on plastic surgery, bariatric surgery, fertility services, and some orthopedic procedures.

But it hasn’t been easy. Before even launching the campaign, the city secured cooperation from the hotel and gaming industries, which draw most of the 43 million visitors who flock to Las Vegas each year. Then came the painstaking infrastructure development — from mapping out patient-friendly hotels to planning transportation logistics.

Figuring out bundled payments, in particular, was critical: Patients flying in from around the world want to know the exact price of their procedure before they arrive.

“Marketing was the last thing we brought to the table,” said Doug Geinzer, CEO of Las Vegas HEALS, the city’s medical tourism initiative. He didn’t have specific numbers on how many patients the campaign has attracted but said most are from the U.S.

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.”

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