Courage, leadership, investment needed to effectively push medical tourism here, experts say

From left, Douglas Geinzer, CEO of Las Vegas HEALS; Ann Lynch, chairwoman of Las Vegas HEALS’ board of directors; Stowe Shoemaker, dean of UNLV’s college of hotel administration, and Michael Vonnozzi, director of public policy at the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, participated in a medical tourism roundtable discussion at the Las Vegas Sun offices, Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014.

When people fly out of town for medical care, they often go abroad for low-cost surgery or head to such world-class centers as the Mayo Clinic for care they can’t get at home.

They don't usually think of coming to Las Vegas for massages, face-lifts and lap bands — but business boosters are trying to change that.

Las Vegas is severely short on almost every kind of doctor and can’t compete with U.S. cities whose top-flight medical centers get patients from around the world. To boost medical tourism, advocates want to promote the dozens of resort spas on the Strip and the valley’s plastic surgeons, bariatric specialists and certain other care-providers. Boosters also want to lure more medical conferences to a city teeming with corporate conventions.

If they succeed, they will overcome Las Vegas’ medical shortfalls to capture a larger share of the $50 billion to $60 billion global medical-tourism sector, a long hoped-for but elusive goal.

“We need to look at this in a different way,” said Ann Lynch, a former longtime executive at Sunrise Hospital & Medical Center. “We’re not going after a Mayo or a Johns Hopkins; we’re going after a Las Vegas tourism-style of medical care.”

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance, UNLV and industry advocate Las Vegas HEALS released a report this month outlining how the valley can boost medical tourism. Among other things, Las Vegas needs 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.

Promoting Las Vegas as a hub for critical, specialized care doesn’t add up. The valley has a steep shortage of physicians, and locals often head to Southern California or elsewhere for treatment.

Efforts are underway to produce more doctors, but in the meantime, Las Vegas still can lure health-seeking travelers, boosters say.

Doug Geinzer, CEO of Las Vegas HEALS; Stowe Shoemaker, dean of UNLV’s college of hotel administration; Michael Vannozzi, director of public policy at the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance; and Lynch, chairwoman of Las Vegas HEALS' board of directors, spoke Tuesday with the Las Vegas Sun’s editorial board about medical tourism.

Edited excerpts:

Geinzer: We have pockets of excellence in bariatrics, weight management, plastic surgery, orthopedics, cancer, brain health. Patients can travel here and bring a loved one who stays at, say, Green Valley Ranch Resort. When the patient gets discharged, they can spend a couple extra nights with their family in Las Vegas while going through rehab. If someone wants to get plastic surgery, what better way than to travel here, protect their anonymity, and come back from a vacation looking very vibrant and alive.

Can people enjoy a vacation after receiving medical treatment? Aren’t they laid up for a while?

Geinzer: It depends on the procedure, and keep in mind, many times you have a companion who’s traveling with them. This is a great place to recover, from a post-operative standpoint, and a great place to come before the surgery, because you’re able to enjoy the amenities.

Las Vegas has a steep doctor shortage. How can you convince people to come here for medical treatment?

Geinzer: We do have a doctor shortage; can’t argue that. But if you look at medical tourism, it’s not primary care. It’s at the specialist level.

But there’s also a big shortage of specialists in Las Vegas.

Geinzer: Certainly, and those are ones we’re not promoting. We have a wealth of cardiovascular thoracic surgeons, for instance, some of the best in the world. That’s what medical tourism is about — getting world-class doctors to come here, to take advantage of the 40 million visitors who travel through here each year.

One thing you mentioned in the report is promoting resort spas and medical conventions. People here are already doing that. How is what you’re proposing different?

Geinzer: With spas, you’re right, it’s occurring. But more and more people are seeking wellness treatments. We’ve got 45 world-class spas on a three-mile stretch of land. No other destination has that. They can see about 1,000 patients an hour, and they are in fact patients. I’ve been battling skin cancer for 20 years. What’s the best way to defeat that? Early detection. How do I see spots on my back? Imagine you’ve got someone on a table; imagine the types of preventative care you can deliver. With meetings, we have a wealth of business professionals who come to Las Vegas two or three times a year. We know they’re coming in, so we’re able to get repeat visitors, talk to them during a spa treatment, and coordinate care for a return trip. Age management, weight management — all of that comes out of that spa environment.

Shoemaker: MGM Resorts has just put in "stay-well" suites, and they charge a premium for them. They have specialty lighting, citrus-infused shower heads, air purifiers. This is a trend that’s happening already.

Will there be a point where medical providers partner with hotels for promotions? Stay at our resort and get your knee fixed, for instance.

Geinzer: There are rumors — I won’t confirm or deny them — that folks from the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins have been in town talking to the Shops at Crystals and other organizations about that. These are world-class brands looking at Las Vegas.

Could Las Vegas ever compete with the likes of Mayo or Cleveland clinics?

Vannozzi: We could get there, but it’s going to take investment, some courage, and some leadership. We are looking at what we have, creating incentives for new doctors to come in, and we need to build out the medical schools being planned at UNLV and Roseman University of Health Sciences. We need to do a lot of work, but it’s conceivable.

Shoemaker: It’s going to take a long time for this to develop, but we have to start somewhere. We do have specialists here; let’s promote those. Over time, that will bring more specialists. Is it going to happen overnight? No. Are we going to become a Texas Medical Center right away? No. But we do have certain things that work very well. And that’s how we’ve approached this. It’s defining health and wellness travel where medical procedures are just one part of it.