SARASOTA — Sarasota's newest tourism pitch: beaches, the arts, fine dining, hip implants.
For years, "medical tourism" conjured images of bargain facelifts in Thailand or Mexico. Now U.S. health providers — including some in Sarasota — have set their sights on luring affluent baby boomers by touting high-quality care and discounting for cash.
Sarasota-based Florida Med-Retreat recently went live with a website promising "surgery in paradise," promoting packaged surgery stays that include everything from post-op therapy to theater tickets.
"Miami — Medical Excellence with a Tropical Flair" is the message on miamihealthcare.org, a collaboration of seven South Florida hospitals.
And "America's Health Center" is the brand that Visit Jacksonville claims for its city, touting the presence of a Mayo Clinic and the University of Florida's Proton Therapy Institute.
Renee-Marie Stephano, editor of Medical Tourism magazine, described Florida's push to attract patients as "small but growing."
U.S. travel restrictions after 9/11 choked the flow of international patients to this country, Stephano explained. U.S. hospitals, after seeing those patients diverted to places like Malaysia or Turkey, are "recognizing medical tourism as a valid industry they need to participate in," she said.
Snowbirds and tourists — especially well-heeled Canadians, whose national health plan dictates a wait of 15 months or more for a hip replacement — have quietly had "work done" in Sarasota for decades. Karin S. Billings, a dual citizen of Germany and the United States, sees an eye doctor every year in her hometown of Hamburg, but opted to have her cataract surgery done in Sarasota
"I wanted the most experienced doctor," said Billings. Her German doctor does a maximum of 10 cataract operations a week, she said, while in Sarasota she found one who performs 4,000 a year. And in Germany she was offered a choice between lenses that corrected for near or distance vision, not the combination lens available in Florida.
Florida Med-Retreat was formed by the leaders of a Sarasota rehabilitation center. They have partnered with two hospitals and 10 surgeons, aiming to turn Sarasota's trickle of health tourists into a tidal wave of picky patients with cash.
Debra Sandberg, director of the Inn at Sarasota Bay Club, a rehabilitation facility at the bayfront retirement center, said most patients used to rely on referrals from people they knew, but now they search the Internet.
"If you're going to 'go private,' as they call it in Sweden — which means you're going to travel and pay for your surgery — you start looking for the best," she said.