Seis Continentes / June 2002
By Larry Luxner
Miami-based Baptist Health South Florida, one of the region's leading hospital networks, is boosting its international prestige -- and its bottom line -- by reaching out to patients across Latin America and the Caribbean.
Baptist Health, a non-profit organization with 1,158 beds and over 2,000 physicians on its staff, consists of six institutions: Baptist Hospital of Miami; South Miami Hospital; Baptist Children's Hospital; Homestead Hospital; Mariners Hospital and Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute.
Despite its well-earned reputation, Baptist Health, like most hospitals, had been losing money in recent years because of changes in reimbursement policies by HMOs. To make up for the revenue losses, it -- along with 70 or so other U.S. hospitals -- have turned to the lucrative international market as a way of attracting wealthy foreigners needing medical care.
And the program at Baptist Health is clearly among the most successful, says Victoria Gomez, manager of international business development.
"Our division was created over seven years ago on a very informal basis," she said. "Over the last four years, we have grown into an organized international program. Baptist Health now has 40 employees in its international division to develop markets in Latin America and the Caribbean, and to cater to international patients' needs."
Baptist Health treats at least 9,000 patients of 75 nationalities every year, with a big share coming from two countries -- Venezuela and Colombia.
"We offer a seamless continuum of care," said Gomez, whose family comes from Colombia and who has a master's degree in public administration from New York University. "From the moment a patient calls from abroad, we assign one person to that case to offer the highest level of personalized service. That person offers assistance with everything from travel arrangements and lodging to all medical and hospital appointments. We even have our own apartments here on campus for patients' families. We also have our own air ambulance and Lear jets. We can send out a plane or a helicopter virtually anywhere in the world."
All this can be costly, but the patients who come to the United States for treatment can certainly afford it. They represent probably the wealthiest one-tenth of 1% of Latin America's population. And they generally pay cash, which makes their business even more lucrative for U.S. hospitals.
According to Gomez, the international division is one of the hospital chain's most profitable divisions, even though it accounts for only a tiny fraction of the $821 million in revenues reported by Baptist Health in fiscal 2001.
"Our business development division markets heavily in Latin America," she says. "As a non-profit organization, we want to attract patients to our hospitals, but we also try to work closely with hospital affiliates and physicians in these countries. For example, our physicians participate regularly in conferences in Latin America. We find a great synergy with doctors and hospitals abroad, because we're not competing with them."
In 1998, two of Baptist Health's affiliates -- Baptist Hospital of Miami and South Miami Hospital -- joined seven local competitors: Mercy Hospital, Mount Sinai, Miami Children's Hospital, Jackson Memorial Hospital, Aventura Hospital, Cedars Hospital and the Miami Heart Institute. Together, they founded Salud Miami to market South Florida as a medical destination overseas. Since then, however, Mercy Hospital and the Miami Heart Institute have dropped out, and others have scaled back their international operations.
"September 11 really affected a lot of international programs," said Gomez. "We've been around awhile, so although we were affected too, luckily we've been able to keep all our employees."
Quite popular among Latin American visitors is the Executive Health and Wellness Program. This half-day physical costs about $1,000 and includes the following: comprehensive examination performed by a board-certified physician; extensive panel of laboratory tests; electrocardiogram, interpreted by a cardiologist; chest X-ray, interpreted by a radiologist; hearing and vision tests; screening for tuberculosis and health risk appraisal.
Depending on age, gender, symptoms, lifestyle and medical history, other procedures may be recommended, such as a cardiac stress test, mammogram, pulmonary function test, bone density screening for osteoporosis, flexible sigmoidoscopy and CT scan of heart and/or lungs.
"Patients spend one morning here, then leave the same day with the results," said Gomez, though she admits that the Executive Program is not for everyone and is rarely covered by insurance.
"It's a very high-end product, an elegant program for upper-income people," she explained. "We market to the traveler who already comes to the United States. Our experience has shown that wealthy Latin Americans travel to the U.S. for medical care regardless of how sophisticated medicine might be in their countries. Another advantage is confidentiality."
That explains why high-level dignitaries, including church officials and several Latin American heads of state, have come to Baptist Health to be treated for drug addiction or alcoholism. Of course, Gomez cannot identify the patients.
"A Colombian psychologist, Omar Mejía, has devoted his life to this program," she said. "The reason it works so well is that, in this case, no one is treated like a VIP. Each individual must play a key role in his or her recovery."
Gomez said that although the international program at Baptist Health is "very profitable," it requires lots of investment, overhead and promotion. Since its inception, the network has spent over $5 million on the program. Marketing efforts range from traditional advertisements in Latin American newspapers and magazines to a new 30-second commercial on CNN en Español that pushes the importance of prevention and early detection.
Helping Baptist Health is its stellar reputation. Earlier this year, Baptist Health was ranked the 14th-best hospital in the United States by the 27 million-member American Association of Retired Persons.