Come for the Health Care, Stay for the Gambling

Is medical tourism a viable way to diversify our economy?

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman has been widely quoted touting medical tourism—attracting people who seek treatment and boosting the local hospitality industry while they’re at it—as a cure for the city’s economic ills. “As far as diversifying our economy, we are now going to have a new industry virtually overnight, and that is medical tourism,” Goodman said in a Las Vegas Review-Journal story about the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health early this year. And just last month in an interview with NPR, Goodman said, “That’s why I love this idea of medical tourism. … I think that’s where our future’s going to be.”

At this point the Ruvo Center, which opened its doors in July 2009, sees patients from a few Western states, but most of them are from Nevada. And just 6 percent of the patients at the Nevada Cancer Institute—the city’s other big draw—are travelers. It doesn’t seem like salvation in the form of medical tourism will arrive anytime soon.

But that doesn’t mean the idea is wrong; more likely, Las Vegas just hasn’t found its footing in the market yet.

When people use the term “medical tourism,” they are usually referring to one of three things: patients seeking lower-priced treatment overseas from U.S.-trained doctors, the concept of combining leisure and medical treatment, or traveling to a location because of the expertise to be found there. “The term is used pretty loosely,” says Stephen Brown, director of the UNLV Center for Business and Economic Research.

The first definition obviously doesn’t apply here. But surprisingly, neither does the second, Brown says. “The patients who come are in need of pretty severe help. They’re not going to be visiting the Hard Rock Café.”

Dr. John Ruckdeschel, director and CEO of the Nevada Cancer Institute, agrees that combining medical care and fun into a vacation-style trip just doesn’t happen very often. “The idea that people want to combine leisure and medical care is wrong,” Ruckdeschel says. “We can’t keep thinking it’s going in that direction, and there’s way too much talk of that concept. People don’t get up and leave for medical care unless it’s to have the exact same thing in Costa Rica for half-price or a greater level of expertise.”

So that leaves the third option, that Las Vegas could be known for its experts and specialties, as the great hope for medical tourism. The equation is simple, Ruckdeschel says: More resources equals more clinical trials and the best doctors, which equals more patients from all over.

To do that, Las Vegas needs to establish an identity, he says. “Are our cancer and brain disease treatments going to attract people, or are we going to say we’re the world’s epicenter of breast enhancements?” He’d like to see the focus on cancer and brain treatments, but plastic surgery could also produce jobs. “That’s the kind of strategic decision we need to be known for,” he says. “Somebody, somewhere, at the governor’s level needs to come forward with a plan.” Brown attended the Nevada Governor’s Conference on Tourism this week in Reno, but says the topic of medical tourism isn’t even on the table right now. He agrees with Ruckdeschel on bolstering what we’ve got. “To the extent that Las Vegas develops its major health care centers of national reputation … [medical tourism is] possible.”

It has certainly helped in other cities around the country. The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.—which started as a small-town practice and is now an international leader in clinical care, research and education—has a $9.6 billion economic impact annually on Minnesota.

Brown notes that Las Vegas has two world-class facilities ready to market. “If we want medical tourism, then let’s look at the Ruvo and the Cancer Institute. Let’s decide on them and support them and market them.” (The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority does not market the city as a medical destination, and it hasn’t analyzed its potential economic impact, an LVCVA spokesman says.)

All of which is not to say that the city has no medical tourism industry now; it does. Just not where you might expect it. Dr. Jon Siems of Siems Eye Center says 15 percent of his patients travel here for Lasik surgery. The center has performed surgery on 200 people from Cuernavaca, Mexico, alone, thanks to word of mouth among patients and easy access to Las Vegas from Mexico. And just last month, his center did surgery on a couple who flew from Rome to get Lasik based on a referral from a friend.

As one of the most experienced refractive surgeons in the country, and one of the first of five doctors to begin using blade-free Lasik, Siems is an example of the go-it-alone ethic that has kept the hope for Las Vegas’ medical tourism alive.

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