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Patients turn into profits for hotels with the right medical connections

TAMPA — They need ice packs, Jell-O and ice cream. Extra pillows are a must.

Need to leave four days earlier than your hotel reservation? No problem. They'll see you for your surgery next month.

Having trouble managing the breakfast buffet? The staff will serve you instead.

And don't worry about that 100-foot walk from the surgery center to the hotel; there's a free electric shuttle with a driver who will bring you to your room and tuck you in.

These are a few ways local hotels are capitalizing on a small but growing tourism market in Tampa Bay: Visitors here for medical services like cosmetic surgeries, cancer treatment, dental procedures or to see a particular specialist.

"They're coming to see specific specialists and these specialists are presenting themselves as luxury, high-level care," said Tom Haines, general manager of the Epicurean Hotel in South Tampa. It's up to the hotels to step up their services in order to capitalize on that niche.

Homewood Suites, for example, is one of five hotels within Tampa's Avion Park Plaza, the most recent being the Hampton Inn and Suites, which opened in December. The plaza is just minutes from the airport, across the street from International Mall and Plaza, and a short drive to downtown Tampa or the beach. But they key for the hotels, which are owned by Tampa-based McKibbon Properties, is that they are steps away from where Laser Spine Institute patients are discharged from surgery. (BioSpine, LSI's competitor, is also located in the plaza.)

It doesn't matter what's happening in town. During big events like a big convention or the College Football Playoff Championship game, Laser Spine Institute's patients are taken care of.

"They're our biggest account," said Denise Kauble, McKibbon's market director of sales for the property. She said the hotels have learned to cater to the medical visitors, like offering the free shuttle and allowing last-minute reservation changes. If the hotel isn't flexible, they won't get the return business, Kauble explained.

"A medical tourist is like a regular tourist on steroids," said Republican Senator Aaron Bean in an interview with Health News Florida in 2015. "They spend more, they stay longer, and it's a much more solid economic boost to our state."

He introduced a 2015 bill that would investigate what state agencies could do to attract more medical tourists. Even though that bill failed, the industry has been expanding on its own. The health care providers across the spectrum are growing. Moffitt Cancer Center has been ranked as the sixth-best cancer center in the country, according to U.S. News and World Report. Its patients booked 34,801 discounted room nights at seven hotels around the area in the 2015/2016 fiscal year, up from 25,835 room nights the year before.

Laser Spine Institute declined to report how many patients it sees annually, but said that people travel an average of 582 miles. Even as they add new surgery centers in areas like Arizona, Texas and Pennsylvania, people still flock to Tampa from around the country and from Canada. Some patients told the Tampa Bay Times that they traveled the extra distance to come here because more services were offered, because they were interested in the destination, or because their health insurance didn't cover the surgery at a center closer to home.

The Parathyroid Center based at Tampa General Hospital operated on 3,300 people in 2016. Of those, 2,900 were from outside of Tampa Bay and 1,848 were from outside of Florida, said the center's founder, Dr. Jim Norman. The hospital said the Parathyroid Center handles more patients from outside of the area than any other part of the hospital.

And typically patients don't travel alone.

Like Dawn Austin, a 39-year-old mother of two from Devon, England, who for the last five years has been struggling with memory loss, extreme fatigue and headaches, all caused by a parathyroid tumor. She came to Tampa to get the tumor removed because she trusted the level of care she would receive at the specialized surgery center.

Typically vacationing in Europe, Asia or Egypt, she had never considered traveling to the U.S. and could not have identified Tampa Bay on a map. Her mother, Jenni Wellstead, had seen a luxury Tampa home on TV once, but that's it. A call center manager, she took out a loan of about a 15,000 pounds (nearly $19,000) to cover the cost of the surgery and trip for her and her mother.

Even though they only needed to be in town for a couple of days to get the surgery, Austin and Wellstead stayed for the week. They rented Coast Bikes to ride around, snapping pictures of the alligators at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo. They planned to spend the rest of the week staying at Clearwater Beach Marriott Suites on Sand Key and visiting the Salvador Dali and the Holocaust museums in St. Petersburg.

"If we're going 4,000 miles we thought we'd see a little bit of the area while we're here," Austin said.

She and her mother were impressed.

"I've already spoken to my partner about it," Austin said. They're planning a return.

Norman said his patients generated 7,500 discounted hotel room nights last year, plus roughly 13,000 room nights for patients who extend their visit. He won't refer them to a hotel if he can't guarantee that they will be spoiled. He has seen at least 12 percent growth annually for the center, which he says is responsible for about 10 percent of the parathyroid surgeries performed in the U.S. each year.

"They're not traveling to Tampa (for Tampa); they're traveling to seek out expertise," Norman said. "If I was in Atlanta they'd go to Atlanta."

Medical tourism can't work everywhere. The sector has grown organically for cities like Chicago, Boston and Las Vegas, which offer many direct flights from across the country. Good weather helps. Hotels need to provide reliable transportation and be understanding with patients' flexible schedules. They key is offering a specialty clinic or surgery or an affordable procedure that is not available (or not covered by insurance) closer to home.

But there is more that could be done to boost this industry locally, said Norman's business partner, Dr. Gary Clayman.

Clayman is a thyroid surgeon who was the Chief of Head and Neck Endocrine Surgery at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. He relocated to Tampa about six months ago to launch The Clayman Thyroid Cancer Center at Tampa General Hospital, which only conducts surgery on people who need their thyroid removed.

He said he sees a handful of international visitors each week, and having more embassies in the area would make it easier to bring in more. Florida isn't known as for having the strongest health care industry, he says.

Tourism officials say the industry is still too small of a niche to track. But visitors keep coming, and many are planning return trips.

Tom and Donna Craig arrived in Tampa on a recent Saturday for Tom to get surgery at Laser Spine, and planned to stay at the Sailport Waterfront Suites for a full week. The couple, who live in Manchester, N.H., are frequent visitors to Clearwater Beach, West Palm Beach and Sarasota.

This is their first time staying in Tampa.

"I think it's a wonderful town," Donna said. "It's clean, people are friendly." They discovered the traditions surrounding Gasparilla on Sunday, after reading about the city's annual pirate festival in the newspaper.

"This is what we should have been doing," she said. "We're coming back next year."

Contact Alli Knothe at aknothe@tampabay.com. Follow @KnotheA.

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