Belize welcomes medical tourism

Belize may soon become popular as the place for well-off North Americans to come to have elective surgery, dental work or other quality medical care at an affordable cost, if BELTRAIDE, Belize Tourism Board and the Ministry of Health have their way.

Medical tourism is a billion-dollar global industry, and some southeast countries, Thailand for example, receive a million medical tourism patients per year. Other Central American countries such as Costa Rica, Guatemala and Panama are also well-established in the medical tourism market, but Belize has a tremendous advantage in that it is the only English-speaking country in Central America and is positioned only a short flight away from gateway cities like Miami, Houston and New Orleans.

Mike Singh, the chief executive officer of the Ministry of Trade Investment Promotion and Private Sector Development, sees it as a tremendous opportunity for Belize. The industry would offer increased employment, not just for Belizean doctors and nurses, but also laboratory technicians, medical assistants, the staff of private clinics, hotels and spas, as well as tour operators and taxi drivers.

There would also be a transfer of technology as foreign specialists who would set up shop in Belize would also help to train local doctors in new procedures, techniques and treatments. The result would also be improved health care made available to Belizeans hear at home so they would no longer need to travel to Merida or Guatemala City for specialist treatment or surgery.

International consultant Massimo Manzi has been working with BELTRAIDE and the BTB to help establish the industry, and he explained that the aging population in the United States, Canada and Europe find that health care in their countries is expensive, even the welfare state cannot provide for all. National Health Insurance or Social Security often does not cover elective procedures, so patients in need of such treatment or surgery are seeking a more affordable alternative.

Qualified doctors in many countries outside North America and Europe offer high quality health care at low cost and this draws in the “medical tourist”. Dental clinics in Belize are already cashing in on offering high quality dental care to visitors from the U.S. and Canada at a fraction of the cost they would pay at home.

Belize unarguably already a very unique attractive destination, English-speaking which puts North Americans at ease, makes them feel more at home, and the bedside manner of our doctors and nurses is warmer and more compassionate and a far cry from the more impersonal treatment visitors may be accustomed to in hospitals at home.

What Belize needs to do is establish high quality standards in compliance with international standards for both the medical infrastructure – the hospital and clinics, and the personnel. Belize is in the process a preparing a bill for legislation that will establish regulations for the medical tourism industry.

Belize is now inviting foreign doctors, medical specialists and investors to establish hospitals and clinics in Belize to cater to medical tourists, the industry will also benefit local practitioners who will have opportunity for medical fellowships abroad to improve their skills.

Dr. Peter Allen, the chief executive officer of the Ministry of Health, sees the industry as a huge opportunity for Belize, with the government of Belize and his ministry working simply as the catalysts to provide the conducive environment for the private sector to prosper. Any investment is not without risks; therefore, a proper regulatory framework must be established to minimize such risks.

Belizean neurosurgeon Dr. Joel Cervantes, president of the Belize medical and Dental Association, says he is committed and on board and happy to be moving our country forward with this new industry.  He noted that getting everyone up to speed with the needs of medical tourists will also require additional training for anyone working in the industry, so that even taxi drivers and tour operators would be trained in first aid and cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

He sees the industry as lowering health care costs for Belizeans. Belize is a small market, so many private hospitals and clinics might not want to invest in certain expensive equipment, like a CAT-scan or a laporoscopy apparatus because they treat too few patients for the investment to be cost-effective, but the equation would rapidly change if they were treating thousands of patients requiring such equipment.

Another sector of the industry is the health spa, for example the Maruba Jungle Resort and Spa, where visitors would come to feel better. Medical tourists seek privacy and seclusion where they may recover and recuperate from surgery or other treatment and Belize’s hotel sector is totally congruent with this requirement. Most of Belize’s hotels and inns are 10-12 rooms, private and secluded, off the beaten path, exactly what medical patients want.

The BTB, BELTRAIDE and the health ministry want North Americans to become aware that Belize is place they can come to feel better, even live longer, and the doctors catering to medical tourists are totally in tune with this concept.

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