Resort spas might be key to luring medical tourists to Las Vegas, report says

Courtesy of Wynn Las Vegas

The spa treatment hall within Encore Las Vegas.

Despite its abysmal doctor shortage, business boosters are hoping to make Las Vegas a hot spot for medical tourism, a long hoped-for but elusive goal.

Two keys to doing this, they say: Get more doctors and, amid a dearth of specialized care, promote massages and nature hikes.

Las Vegas has the potential to snag a larger share of the $50 billion to $60 billion global medical-tourism sector, thanks in part to Las Vegas’ international air traffic capacity, its numerous medical conventions and the Affordable Care Act’s focus on prevention and wellness, according to a report out today by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, UNLV and industry advocate Las Vegas HEALS.

To boost business, the valley needs, among other things, locally based medical schools, more training programs for medical-school graduates, more industry meetings and more travelers seeking spa treatments and outdoor recreation, the groups said.

They acknowledged that Las Vegas can’t compete with the industry’s two main strategies: Low-cost treatment, as obtained in such countries as Costa Rica and Malaysia, and top-notch albeit very expensive care at world-class domestic providers such as Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic and the Texas Medical Center.

As it is, Nevada has severe shortages of both generalists and specialists, including family practice doctors (46th-lowest rate in the country), pediatricians (46th) and orthopedic surgeons (51st), according to University of Nevada School of Medicine researchers.

But Las Vegas still can lure health-seeking visitors, boosters say, in part because of the valley’s 45 or so resort spas.

"I think there is an assumption that wellness is only defined by things like cholesterol check-ups and executive physicals. That’s the medical aspect of it,” Cheryl Smith, the authority’s medical and wellness tourism manager, said in a news release. “But there’s a proactive side: prevention. Our spas contribute to overall health and well-being, stress reduction and rejuvenation.”

The groups said they crafted their plan after holding dozens of meetings with industry leaders from early 2013 to early this year.

“Las Vegas has everything it takes to succeed in this effort,” Las Vegas HEALS chief executive Doug Geinzer said.

Health care and tourism pros have been trying for years to boost medical tourism in Las Vegas. There has been some progress, but overall, business is far from robust.

Marketing efforts are more organized now, but they reportedly were hampered over the years by a leadership void, egos and jealousy within the industry.

Promoters, realizing they can't persuade doctors to move here en masse, focused in recent years on promoting spa and wellness treatments and luring medical conventioneers.

Pitching Las Vegas around the world as a hub for specialized medical care doesn't add up. Among other problems, the valley doesn’t have nearly enough doctors for its own residents, let alone a big influx of tourists, as many Southern Nevadans head to Southern California or elsewhere for medical care.

No other major metro area misses out on as much local medical-related spending as Las Vegas, according to Robert Lang, director of Brookings Mountain West at UNLV, a public-policy research group.

Doctors and researchers blame the physician shortage on Las Vegas’ once-booming population, which grew too fast for doctors to keep pace; low levels of government funding for medical education; the lack of a locally based M.D.-granting medical school, making Las Vegas by far the largest region in the country without one; and Las Vegas’ reputation as a gambling and party town with bad schools, which makes it hard to lure doctors.

One of the biggest problems, though, is the dearth of residency slots, which offer specialized training for medical-school graduates. Residents often stay to work, at least initially, where they train, but most medical-school graduates in Nevada, faced with few options here, head elsewhere for those programs.

Efforts are underway to boost the number of local doctors, though, which could also improve medical tourism.

State education officials have pledged to open an M.D.-granting medical school at UNLV. Also, Roseman University of Health Sciences, a private school in Henderson that trains dentists, nurses and others, plans to open an M.D.-granting medical school in Las Vegas in the next few years.

Meanwhile, MountainView Hospital and University of Nevada School of Medicine officials recently said they would work to create 150 residency slots in the valley over a five-year period, starting as soon as July 2016.

Preliminary talks have focused on a range of training programs, including internal and family medicine, geriatrics, general surgery, urology and neurology.