Hope rekindled for medical tourism industry

Local promoters have talked for a decade about creating a medical tourism industry, but have little to show for it beyond talk.

Yet another panel discussion on the topic on Tuesday night gave the concept's backers hope that tangible progress might finally be near.

"What we did was get all the right people in the room at the same time discussing it and showing interest," said Doug Geinzer, the CEO of the Southern Nevada Medical Industry Coalition, which sponsored the event.

However, the approximately 100 medical professionals still have widely differing ideas about what will bring out-of-town patients to Las Vegas: an extension of a big-name institution or something homegrown, a broad-based practice or individual specialties, marketing just Las Vegas or the entire state, or focusing more on Americans or foreigners.

Since becoming the dean of the University of Nevada School of Medicine in July, Dr. Thomas Schwenk noted the that the local doctors display a "certain sense of individualism and passion and a tendency to head in 20 different directions at the same time."

Moreover, the meeting included only a handful of people from the tourism industry. In the past, they have looked at medical treatment as another avenue to fill hotel rooms and restaurants, while medical professionals view tourism as taking a back seat to their work.

Without a unified agenda, said state Sen. Valerie Wiener, D-Las Vegas, securing help from the Legislature next year would be unlikely.

One step toward medical tourism was unveiled in the form of the Las Vegas Health & Wellness Guide, co-produced by Medical Tourism Magazine and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. Although it carries a $15.95 price, it will largely be handed out at conventions and meetings with 21 pages of clinical listings at 65 pages of hotels and attractions.

But broadcast executive Jim Rogers noted, "Tourism cannot be most of what we are going to do. It's got to be the quality of medicine."

He, along with some others who have looked at the issue, believe that a comprehensive medical institution is the biggest draw. People travel to places they would otherwise shun, such as Rochester, Minn., Cleveland and Baltimore to check into the Mayo Clinic, the Cleveland Clinic and Johns Hopkins. If a procedure or a checkup discovers something unexpected, the right specialist is close by; the patient doesn't have to be sent to another side of a city.

Based on the infighting he saw during his five years as the chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education, he said, "I have great doubts about the ability to put a system together. We don't have any great large medical groups here and that doesn't sell."

The university and University Medical Center of Southern Nevada have started down the path of closer collaboration, but that will take time.

Some individual practices have said they have been able to draw patients from elsewhere, such as the local office of the Sher Institutes for Reproductive Medicine. Others have run into trouble, such as the Nevada Cancer Institute. Once touted as a major medical tourism draw, it financially collapsed and has become a branch of the University of California, San Diego Health System.

But enough elements are in place to make the medical tourism work, Geinzer said.

"We have great health care in this town," he said. "But we don't do a great job of marketing it."

Contact reporter Tim O'Reiley at toreiley@reviewjournal .com or 702-387-5290.