Health care:

Experts: Here’s what Vegas needs to become a health care hub

Mona Shield Payne

Spa Director Jennifer Lynn, who also heads the Las Vegas Spa Association, is shown in one of three decadent Dragon Suites in Mandarin Oriental Las Vegas Tuesday, April 16, 2013.

When medical and tourism professionals from Southern Nevada got together years ago to plot a course to bring people to Las Vegas to treat their ailments, there were plenty of skeptics.

Why would anybody come to a renowned adult playground for a medical procedure? Did Las Vegas really have enough quality physicians to be considered a medical tourism destination?

A decade later — and after two years of concentrated efforts — Las Vegas’ medical tourism community has yet to flourish. Although some people come here specifically for treatment, the valley hasn’t developed the robust industry for which leaders had hoped.

That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. States such as Arizona, Florida and California have carved out booming medical tourism industries that attract patients from around the world, fill hotel rooms, create jobs and help support offshoot businesses.

So what will it take for Southern Nevada to become a medical tourism hub?

According to the experts:

• More medical specialists. Southern Nevada is home to a number of renowned doctors, but many local residents still travel out of town to see specialists for particular ailments.

• More public awareness. Many potential out-of-town patients aren’t aware of the doctors and services available in Southern Nevada, and a good number of medical professionals don’t know about the valley’s educational facilities. To combat that, officials have published medical directories listing local doctors and their specialties, and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is working to bring more medical meetings to Las Vegas.

• A strategic plan. Although medical industry professionals have talked about the potential of medical tourism for years, there hasn’t been a coordinated effort to take the steps necessary to make the vision a reality. The Governor’s Office of Economic Development has stepped up and asked UNLV to draft a plan that is expected to be delivered this year.

• A medical school. Many observers say it’s essential for Southern Nevada to have a top medical research university if the valley wants to grow its medical tourism sector. But industry leaders are divided on whether that school should be part of the Nevada System of Higher Education or be a partnership with another prominent medical school.

“You’ve got to kiss a lot of frogs to get a princess, and we’ve been kissing a lot of frogs,” said former university system chancellor Jim Rogers, who has been one of the industry’s biggest doubters.

Proponents say creating a vibrant medical tourism business in Southern Nevada is a lengthy process that will take years to bear fruit. Like most economic development programs, it’s a work in progress, they say.

Even Rogers is hopeful something can come of the idea. He said he recognizes that the race is a marathon, not a sprint.

“The thing I like about the efforts of Southern Nevada to develop medical tourism is that we’re aggressive and we won’t take no for an answer,” Rogers said. “If we don’t succeed with an idea the first time, we go on to the next idea. We may get rejected three times, but we’ll go on to the fourth one, and that may be the one that does it.”

Industry leaders had a similar thought. They are in the process of expanding the definition of medical tourism to include conventions and spa treatments in an effort to draw more interest locally.

Medical tourism has had some successes here. Several clinics and doctors are treating patients who travel thousands of miles. The Sher Institute for Reproductive Medicine and the Gastric Band Institute each bring in thousands of out-of-town patients for treatments. The Nevada Spine Institute markets its services in China, Russia and the Middle East. And the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health has gained international acclaim for its research and treatment of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

Dr. Michael Crovetti, owner of Crovetti Orthopedics and Coronado Surgical Recovery Suites in Henderson, said he is seeing a growing number of patients from Alaska because his procedures cost half of what they do in Alaska. Even with the cost of travel and lodging, which rarely is covered by insurance, it’s a more viable option for some, he said.

For international patients, the costs can be higher — prohibitively so.

Dr. Nicholas Vogelzang, an expert in prostate, kidney, bladder and testicular cancers at the Comprehensive Cancer Centers of Nevada, sees patients from Turkey, Brazil and Mexico. He recently received an inquiry about care from a man in Egypt.

Still, Vogelzang said, “for most people, it’s not economically viable to come here because of the cost involved and because their insurance may or may not cover drugs in the United States.”

Once expenses are analyzed, it’s almost always cheaper for a patient to be treated at home. But cost is just one factor in the medical tourism equation. Industry leaders say that if patients are going to go any place for treatment, Las Vegas is one of the easiest. Air fares here are relatively inexpensive, and McCarran International Airport is a hub for direct flights from around the world.

• • •

For years, Southern Nevada’s medical tourism efforts were hampered by a leadership void, egos and jealousy within the industry. Over the past year, however, representatives have come together to form a more strategic approach and identify key industry personnel. They include:

• Doug Geinzer, CEO of the Southern Nevada Medical Industry Coalition, who has led the push for a local medical tourism industry for years.

• Vance Farrow, whom Gov. Brian Sandoval hired to coordinate medical tourism efforts for the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. Sandoval identified health care as one of the key industries Nevada hopes to attract for job creation and growth.

• Stowe Shoemaker, a gaming professor at UNLV’s Harrah College of Hotel Administration, who is drafting a strategic plan for medical tourism.

• Cheryl Smith, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority’s first medical tourism sales manager.

When she started in April 2012, Smith, who was hired from HCA Healthcare, quickly realized that the valley’s fledgling medical tourism industry needed coordination. She established a three-pronged approach to expand the definition of medical tourism.

“It’s a multifaceted approach,” Smith said. “It’s medical meetings and health care meetings and bringing more of those here. The second is looking at wellness tourism. To me, it meant going out and talking to our hotel spa partners. The third is medical travel.”

That third element is what officials had previously been promoting.

“Right now, that’s not our primary focus since we’re working on meetings and wellness travel,” Smith said.

The group recognized that it was unlikely to get health professionals to move to Southern Nevada en masse.

Instead, medical tourism officials determined that the key to growth was expanding the industry’s reach to try to appeal to a broader audience. The ultimate goal still is attracting out-of-town patients, but the more immediate focus has shifted toward promoting spa massages as “wellness treatments” and bringing medical professionals to Southern Nevada for conferences and seminars.

Las Vegas already is the leading destination for medical meetings and conferences, having ranked No. 1 on the Healthcare Convention and Exhibitors Association’s most recent list of “Top 20 Healthcare Meeting Destinations.”

The American Academy of Anti-Aging and Regenerative Medicine committed to have its conference in Las Vegas for five more years. The National Association of Dental Plans is scheduled in September at the Bellagio. And the Medical Tourism Association’s World Medical Tourism and Global Healthcare Congress, which is attended by representatives from 90 countries, will land in Las Vegas this year.

To cater to the medical professionals in town for training, several local “bio-skills” facilities have been built, including the Medical Education and Research Institute of Nevada, the Medical Innovation and Training Institute, the MedCure Surgical Training Center, LVI Dental’s Center for Advanced Professional Education and the Oquendo Center. The facilities enable companies and medical representatives to demonstrate new devices and techniques to large groups of health care providers.

Companies often send doctors to the centers to learn how to use new products — knee-replacement devices, for example. The hope is that the more the medical industry sees Las Vegas, the more it will embrace it.

Oquendo Medical Center

A view of the large indoor animal pen at the Oquendo Center, an educational medical facility, Wednesday April 17, 2013. Launch slideshow »

The Oquendo Center is a 66,000-square-foot training space. Doctors from around the world visit the facility to learn about orthopedics, spine, neuro, cranial and dental implant procedures. Dozens of hands-on labs allow them to test the devices on donated human tissue. Equipment and surgical procedures are demonstrated on site.

“We get them on the short term, but the hope is that they’ll come to Vegas, they’ll have a good educational experience, they’ll like their time here and then, who knows? There may be a handful of them that say, ‘Once Vegas establishes itself as a high-quality medical destination, what a great place to end up,’” CEO David Little said. “Or maybe they have colleagues that will give us a look.”

Oquendo originally opened as a teaching facility for veterinarians, and it still shares offices with the Western Veterinary Conference, which brings 15,000 veterinary doctors and students to Mandalay Bay every year. But after being approached by a tissue bank, the center shifted its primary focus and evolved into a learning site for human procedures.

“We found internally that this could be good business for us,” Little said.

Since that 2009 breakthrough, use of the facility has increased by more than 240 percent, revenue has jumped more than 860 percent, and Oquendo now is one of the two largest bio-skills labs in the country.

“The business has just exploded,” Little said. “Now, we deal with all the medical device companies, all the big names in the industry.”

Las Vegas also is among the top destinations in the world for spas. Almost 50 of the city’s resorts have spas, and many of them are ranked among the best in the country.

Whereas nationally most spa customers are female, in Las Vegas, the gender split is 50-50.

Medical tourism officials contend that the city’s spas are among its greatest health care assets. They hope to promote the spas as a means to wellness.

“I like to call it medical and wellness tourism,” said Jennifer Lynn, director of The Spa at Mandarin Oriental. “Stress relief is the No. 1 reason people go to spas. We think of that as a proactive, preventive way of dealing with the medical conditions that come with being overstressed and sleep deprived.”

Some out-of-state spas even have begun to hire medical professionals. Doctors give clients check-ups and physicals and treat them as part of expanded spa packages that aim to help people stop smoking or lose weight.

“For some of these spas, it’s a weeklong visit to treat something,” Lynn said.

The trend has yet to be embraced in Southern Nevada and likely won’t be, presenting a potential problem for medical tourism promoters. Lynn said many local spa operators have concerns about liability, privacy and confidentiality that will keep them from hiring medical personnel. She also warned that spas might not be sold on the idea of marketing themselves as sites for medical treatments because they prefer the image of vibrant, healthy clients over sickly patients.

• • •

At UNLV, staffers and students are studying medical tourism in the classroom.

Shoemaker has been tasked with retooling the existing strategy.

“We’re in the process of redefining that strategy, really looking at the data to support whether it’s a good strategy or not and really letting the data speak for itself in terms of what the next steps are for Las Vegas,” he said.

The study will look at 12 aspects of the industry, from the types of medical tourism available to the costs. Doctorate students will study residents’ perceptions of local health care and tourists’ experiences with area doctors.

Shoemaker said he’ll also study how medical tourism officials can work with Veterans Affairs hospitals and travel agents to boost interest and services offered.

Shoemaker expects to complete the study by fall. An initial draft is planned for July.

Geinzer hopes to tap the expertise of UNLV’s Hotel Management School to train doctors and other health care providers about customer service.

“That’s a lot of what medical care is all about. It’s about making people feel better,” Geinzer said. “I think our resort industry already has the privacy and confidentiality part of it down, but making patients feel welcome is something we need to do better.”

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