A CURE FOR ALL SEASONS

Costa Rica 2017 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | FOCUS: MEDICAL TOURISM

Increased private hospital development and well-trained medical professionals have led to a rise in medical tourism.

Medical tourism has become a booming industry for Latin American countries, and Costa Rica is no exception. A stable and consistent medical sector and competitive prices have made it a destination for people looking for inexpensive but high-quality medical care.

The Council for the International Promotion of Costa Rican Medicine (PROMED) is the national authority in charge of raising Costa Rica's status in the eyes of medical tourists everywhere. PROMAD reports that more than 50,000 foreigners entered Costa Rica in 2015 to receive medical treatment, spending more than USD338 million. This represents an increase of 20% on the previous year. Further indicators show that foreigners are spending more time and more money in the country; PROMED data indicates that foreign medical tourists are spending an average of 15 days and USD7,000 during their visits.

The majority of Costa Rica's medical tourists come from the US, with significant additional populations coming from Canada. Rising private healthcare costs and lack of universal healthcare in the US have created a sizeable market of consumers looking for alternate options, and Costa Rica is a natural fit due to its proximity, cost, and high quality of care. One of PROMED's main priorities as a promotion agency is making US consumers aware of the breadth of their options in Costa Rica. With prices that can be as little as half that of a comparable procedure in the US or Europe, it is little wonder that, once informed of the options available, consumers begin to flock to San José.

To be sure, outreach is only one part of the equation—growth has also come as word of the quality of Costa Rican procedures has spread. Years of investment in improving private hospitals has resulted in a robust and modern sector that meets international qualities of care. The country has two private hospitals and an additional 25 clinics that have attained Joint Commission Certificate accreditation, testifying to the quality of care provided. This comes from the country's reputation as one of the most stable and highly skilled in Central America. Costa Rican doctors have on the whole received a very high standard of training and have high levels of English fluency, making them a natural fit for US tourists. PROMED reports that over 80% of specialists received training abroad, establishing credibility and an important selling point with foreigners.

“The medical tourism segment will continue growing in the medium term," Minister of Health Dr. Fernando Llorca Castro told TBY. “There are several initiatives in place to develop related areas such as social tourism and to continue carrying out the same long-term strategies that we have been for many years. We are even looking at ways to encourage older people to move here after retiring." The industry has also begun to specialize in a few key procedures traditionally unavailable to foreigners. PROMED reports that 42% of North American medical tourists receive dental implants, making dentistry the country's largest medical tourism product. It is a natural fit for the US market, because recent healthcare reforms that expanded care do not cover dental. A further 10% receive cosmetic operations.

Looking to the future, industry participants recognize that there is still room for improvement. The relative strength of Costa Rica's currency has led to prices that are higher than regional competitors, says MESA Medical General Director Rafael Vargas. “We have high quality but we are also more expensive than other countries," Vargas told TBY. “Nicaragua, Panama, and Colombia are also competitive in medical tourism… Colombia is up to 40% cheaper than Costa Rica. Prices are something we need to address if we are to become more competitive in medical tourism and attract more medical tourists." The sector also realizes that further development of the private hospital system is needed for continued expansion, and PROMED has taken the initiative in pushing for new development and helping train workers. Retirees and elderly care are another sector that the medical tourism industry is hoping to add in the medium term; a US-funded hospital under development in San José includes a retirement community with a capacity of 400.