August 27, 2015
BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – María Isabel Valenzuela Rivas, 62, knew she was overweight, and she wanted to do something about it. She considered weight-loss programs near her home in Chile, but the only places that offered such programs were too expensive for her and didn’t include the medical treatments that she wanted.
Valenzuela Rivas broadened her search to neighboring Argentina, where she found what she was looking for: a center offering specialized treatment under the care of a doctor, psychologist, physical therapist and nutritionist. Even including airfare and accommodations, Valenzuela Rivas says, the center in Argentina was much more affordable than anything she could find in Chile.
“Regrettably in my country, health is completely commercialized,” Valenzuela Rivas says in a Skype video call. “There is a public system that is dreadful, in which a person can be waiting two years for a spinal operation. And if they leave the public system, the cost is so high that it’s almost unpayable.”
More than 14,000 foreigners spent an estimated $182 million on medical tourism in Argentina in 2014, according to data from the National Institute of Tourism Promotion, and the Argentine government hopes to attract many more people.
Last week, the Argentine Congress of International Medical Tourism – the first of its kind – met in Buenos Aires, and the government announced a five-year plan to increase medical tourism revenue to $500 million annually and become the premier medical tourism destination in Latin America.
Experts on the industry say the escalation of medical tourism could negatively affect the medical needs of Argentines. Government officials say citizens won’t suffer and that the country needs to expand the field.
Tourism represents 7 percent of Argentina’s annual GDP, says Miguel Cané, president of the Argentine Chamber of Medical Tourism.
The majority of the country’s medical tourists come from other Latin American countries, according to the National Institute of Tourism Promotion. Forty-one percent of patients come from Chile, 29 percent from Uruguay, and 30 percent is divided among people from the rest of the world, primarily Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia and some Central American countries.
The majority of them – 67 percent – visit Argentina in search of curative medicine procedures and treatments, according to the institute. The remaining 33 percent come for cosmetic treatments, including cosmetic surgeries, liposuction, weight-loss programs and cosmetic dentistry, among others.
Though reports vary, the global, medical tourism industry is valued at $38.5 billion to $55 billion, according to Patients Beyond Borders, an international medical and health travel publication. This is based on about 11 million cross-border patients worldwide who spend, on average, $3,500 to $5,000 per visit.
In the Western Hemisphere, Costa Rica, Mexico and the United States are the top destinations, according to the publication. Potential cost savings on medical procedures is a main incentive for travelers, who in nations other than Argentina primarily travel for cosmetic surgeries, such as dentistry and weight loss, among others.
Alejandro Muñiz, vice president of the chamber, says one of Argentina’s advantages is that its medical system is affordable and highly developed. This is attractive for foreigners who don’t have health insurance, he says.
Muñiz says a coronary bypass surgery in an Argentine clinic costs an average of $26,000.
According to research published this year by the American Heart Association, the cost of that procedure for an uninsured patient in a U.S. hospital would be between about $45,000 and about $450,000 – as much as 17 times higher than the average cost in Argentina.
Miguel Cané, son of the chamber president, and the general manager of La Posada del Qenti, a medical spa and resort in the Córdoba province in central Argentina, says one of every 15 guests at the inn is a medical tourist. Valenzuela Rivas was one of those tourists. The inn offers plans to lose weight, stop smoking or control diabetes or stress, he says.
Foreign patients choose Argentina because treatments and procedures are inexpensive, but also because the country has prestige, says Dr. Jorge Lantos, medical director at the Sanatorio de los Arcos hospital in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital. The training of doctors in Argentina is renowned worldwide, he says.
Patients also enjoy shorter waiting periods than they might in other countries, Lantos says. In Argentina, he says, waiting lists for medical procedures are usually around 10 days.
But some experts are concerned that more medical tourists in Argentina will mean poor care for Argentines. Eugenio Yunis, a member of the ethics committee at the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization, says medical tourism could negatively affect the poorest sectors of the country receiving the tourists. Medical tourism can generate more economic returns, such as occupancy in hotels and restaurants, he says. But that form of tourism tends to divert the attention of medical professionals to foreign patients.
“For it to be sustainable and generate long-term, equitably distributed benefits, it should be developed with very high ethical standards, given that it presents higher vulnerabilities than other segments of tourism,” he says.
Cané, the chamber president, says that with the existing medical infrastructure, the country can attend to foreign patients without compromising its citizens. Cané is also the founder of La Posada del Qenti, where his son is general manager.
“That is the limit,” he says. “In no way will attention to international patients be privileged over the need the country has.”
Cané, who considers Canada and the U.S. to be major competitors, says a significant challenge will be to divert tourists as far south as Argentina.
Muñiz says clinics and other facilities catering to medical tourists don’t expect to see an influx of foreigners this year but that he expects growth to be a big focus in the coming year.
“The expectation is that we continue growing and we achieve in positioning ourselves as a leading country in the region in the field of medical tourism, which in some way we are already getting,” he says.
Rishi Khalsa, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.