ABREAST OF EVENTS

Colombia 2013 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | FOCUS: MEDICAL TOURISM

In less than a decade, Colombia has become a premier destination for medical tourism, with an increasing number of foreigners seeking specialized medical treatment.

In 2012, Colombian hospitals saw a rise in the number of foreign visitors seeking treatment as the country becomes a hub for patients from around the world, many of whom are seeking complex and specialized treatments, such as cardiac surgery, knee and hip replacements, gastric bypass, pacemaker implantation, mitral value replacement, dentistry, and cosmetic surgery, among others. Patients from abroad are attracted to the excellent reputation of Colombian physicians and surgeons, as well as the country's affordable prices.

According to the National Statistics Department (DANE) and the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Tourism, Colombia received close to 58,000 foreign tourists seeking medical treatment in 2011, generating revenues of $80 million. Although most patients come from the US for cardiovascular surgery—bariatric (weight loss) or cosmetic surgeries in Colombia can cost 40% less than patients pay at home—there are an increasing number of patients coming from Canada, Spain, France, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Peru, as well as from Central America and the Caribbean.

The Santos administration is expecting that the number of foreigners visiting Colombia for medical tourism may increase to reach 2.8 million in 20 years. Through the Productive Transformation Program (PTP), the government aims to make Colombia a worldwide leader by 2032, generating at least $6 billion with competitive costs, high quality, and innovation at the core of medical services. To this end, the government is working toward the international accreditation of more than 12 clinics and bilingual programs, which are being promoted at hospitals. According to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Tourism, since the program began the industry has invested over $300 million in building new clinics under the scheme of health zones and is additionally investing over $300 million in the renovation, expansion, and modernization of existing infrastructure.

Aesthetic surgery in particular is booming, with Colombian plastic surgeons becoming renown worldwide. According to Plastic Surgeon & President of the Sociedad Colombiana de Cirugía Plástica Estética y Resconstructiva, Carlos Enrique Hoyos Salazar, the most popular procedures are liposculpture, breast augmentation, and rhinoplasty for women. For men, there is an increasing demand for eyelid surgery and rhinoplasty. In terms of techniques that are not completely surgical procedures, treatments that are more in demand are the use of botox and hylauronic acid injections for the face. “We feel that we're on the same level as more developed countries in plastic surgery, such as the US, Brazil, France, Spain, and Mexico," he said.

The number of foreign patients coming to the country for medical procedures has steadily increased in parallel with the increased quality of its hospitals and new initiatives. Bogotá will construct a $19.7 million medical tourism center in 2013. Furthermore, the construction of the Bosque Beauty Garden Hotel and Medical Center in Bogotá will cover 7,000 sqm and consist of two towers; one for a 62-suite hotel and the other for a medical center with 58 rooms. Cosmetic surgery will be a major part of services on offer, with five-star accommodation for visitors alongside shops, green spaces, and conference rooms.

Other cities in Colombia emerging as medical tourism destinations in the region are also developing important initiatives in the sector. One example is Cartagena and its Medical City, which will sit on 55 acres that have been declared a permanent free zone by the import-export taxing authority DIAN. The zone will boast a high-tech hospital in its first phase and come equipped with 40 beds initially, with expansion plans to house 200 beds by the end of the project. The institution will be surrounded by medical offices that house specialists that already operate in the Cartagena area and cover areas such as oncology, ophthalmology, dentistry, radiology, and orthopedics and joint replacements, as well as cardiovascular and bariatric surgery.