When legendary soccer icon Diego Armando Maradona, an Argentine native, traveled to Colombia for bariatric surgery in 2005, he was playing a rather organic role in Colombia’s strategic initiative to lure patients from around the globe to its world-class medical facilities. His remarkable transformation was natural publicity for Colombia and its prestigious, yet affordable health services. Maradona also had dental work while there, highlighting the concierge package services that have medical tourists traveling to Colombia in droves to undergo procedures that would cost them tens of thousands more in their homeland.
Gone are the days when Colombia’s image was mostly tarnished by terrorist and street violence. With unprecedented levels of government investment since the 1990s, Colombia’s own personality makeover has made this destination renown as much for its striking natural diversity and beautiful scenery as for becoming a growing contender among the world’s best-performing healthcare systems.
Colombia’s recent changes are no accident. Its leaders are capitalizing on the expenditures made in infrastructure, conservation, safety and healthcare to purposefully promote medical tourism. The influx of international patients-slash-tourists is being monitored by the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism and the Ministry of Social Protection, which oversees healthcare.
The joint campaign falls under the auspices of Proexport Columbia, which promotes non-traditional exports, international tourism and foreign investment within Colombia. Proexport hosts international medical teams to familiarize foreign health professionals with Colombia’s medical facilities and practices. Proexport also participates in international meetings to conduct medical tourism outreach.
The effort is paying big dividends. Proexport estimates that 2.2 percent of Colombia’s international visitors in 2008 came for medical treatment. The Associated Press reported that year Colombia hosted a record-breaking 1.3 million tourists, who spent about $2.5 billion while there. Proexport says medical tourists are most often attracted to the affordable prices of elective care, such as cosmetic surgery. However, the country’s deepening its stake in weight-loss, cardiovascular, dental, kidney, cancer and other forms of surgical treatment too.
Global health authorities are increasingly recognizing the value of Colombia’s healthcare system. The Colombian constitution guarantees all citizens access to healthcare and an independent report by the World Health Organization, the “World Health Statistics 2011,” says Colombia indeed extends service to an impressive 94 percent of its population.
The country boasts 58,761 physicians, 23,940 nurses and midwives, 33,951 dentists and comparable numbers of pharmacists and allied health professionals, along with state-of-the-art hospitals, clinics and care facilities. Low-cost generic medications are also widely available. According to WHO, Colombia spends 6.8 percent of its gross domestic product on healthcare, making Colombia rank sixth in the world for healthcare financing. Another WHO report ranked Colombia 22nd in the world for overall healthcare system efficiency, a high achievement considering the WHO believes most government spending on healthcare around world is wasted in inefficiency. The United States ranked 37th.
In light of its high-quality, low-cost medical care, Colombia is positioning itself as Latin America’s premier health tourism destination, on par with Thailand, Mexico, Singapore, India, Malaysia, and other countries identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as medical tourism hotspots. The New York Times reported that approximately 150,000 people leave the United States for medical procedures annually. In addition to its tropical, Caribbean-and-Pacific views, Colombia boasts a short plane ride from the United States and daily service by America’s discount airliners. This makes overall cost of travel for Americans, Canadians and other Latin American natives significantly lower than traveling to Asia.
The Joint Commission International, a global accreditation organization, has officially certified two hospitals, one in the capital of Bogota and another in Floridablanca. Proexport reports that more than a dozen others are in the midst of the lengthy accreditation process. To date the Joint Commission International has only accredited 140 medical facilities outside of the United States. In addition, several hospitals in major cities like Medellin, Cali and Cartegena have up to 80 percent of their international patients coming from the United States, Aruba, Curacao, Venezuela, Panama, Spain and the Netherlands. Some medical facilities have created “international patient care” units, where patients’ stay, hotel accommodations, flights and transfers, food, tours and other assistance are coordinated.
In addition to seeking accreditation and providing holistic care for medical tourists, Colombian medical facilities are forging relationships and affiliations with highly reputable hospitals and medical research facilities in the United States, such as Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Cleveland Clinic. These connections help medical teams learn from each other and update their procedural standards, guidelines and clinical pathways, says the American Medical Association. Many of Colombia’s physicians are bilingual and studied medicine in the United States.
The main draw of medical tourists to Colombia is the significant savings achieved over the cost of healthcare in counties like the United States and Canada. The Medical Tourism Association recently compiled cost comparisons of common surgical procedures, and the difference in out-of-pocket expenses in the United States versus Colombia is astonishing, ranging between 60 and 90 percent.
The beauty of medical tourism in Colombia is the opportunity to get quality care while also partaking in a country with a rich history — and undergoing a modern renaissance. With the crackdown on illegal drugs and paramilitary activity, regions once known as hideouts for rebels are becoming cosmopolitan enclaves. Parks in major cities have been revamped and downtown areas have removed traffic to become pedestrian-friendly gathering spots. Restaurateurs, hoteliers, real estate developers, night life business operators have responded in waves and resuscitated urban life and revitalized the country’s reputation. Strolling down the streets of Bogota and other major cities, tourists are struck by the architecture and variety of shopping options. Handcrafts from regional fairs in small towns to exquisite pieces found in upscale urban malls are all the rage. But Colombia’s most noted shopping passion is clothing. Frommer’s describes Bogota, Cartagena and Cali as a shopaholic’s dream come true.
The nation is situated at the northern edge of South America at the base of Panama and sandwiched between Venezuela and Ecuador. Its urban dens wildly contrast to the dense Amazonian rainforest regions, as well as the impressive beaches, idyllic countryside and snow-capped mountain ranges. Most popular are friendly residents, full of national pride and willing to help a tourist along the way. A multi-ethnic nation, Colombia has influences from Spain and France mixed with its indigenous cultures.
You will need a valid passport to visit Colombia, which will grant a stay of 60 days. If you are a citizen of the United States, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, South Africa, New Zealand, Germany, France, Canada or Australia, you don’t need a visa. Additional time in country requires permission from the Colombian Security Department, called DAS. There’s a fee for applying. The official currency of the nation is the Colombian peso. In Aug. 2011, $1 American dollar was equal to $1772.50 Colombian pesos; £1 British pound was equal to 2,917.54 pesos. Frommer’s says the American dollar is not widely accepted so you’ll have to convert or use credit cards. Fortunately, your pluggable electronics will work just fine.Sources