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By Citizen Reporter


How the coronavirus pandemic ravaged medical tourism

As costs mount in the coronavirus crisis, hospitals are shifting their plans to develop hotels for patients seeking specialised treatments, despite an uncertain outlook.

Over the past several years, hospitals began to play innkeeper to open the door to more elective surgery, which is the lifeblood of their revenue.

They developed hotels near their operating rooms where patients, who often came from overseas for specialised treatments, could recover comfortably. Expanding into the hospitality business also allowed health care providers to avoid the high costs of being hosts themselves.

But, as with so much else, the coronavirus pandemic has devastated medical tourism. To allow doctors to focus on emergencies, hospitals have cancelled hip replacements and tummy tucks, while flight bans have grounded many foreign visitors.

Compounding the decline, multiday protests in May and June against police brutality, set off by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, have also given travellers pause, depriving hospitals of some of their best-paying customers, according to those who work in the industry.

“Unfortunately, the future looks bleak,” said Trey Hulsey, a co-founder of Hayakoum, a three-year-old service that handles travel arrangements for patients from the Middle East bound for hospitals in Boston, Houston and Philadelphia. “It’s just been one blow after another.”

Hilton Miami Dadeland has 186 rooms, starting at $100 a night, plus a farm-to-table restaurant. Picture: Angel Valentin / The New York Times

Yet hospitals, whose costs have mounted as the pandemic dragged on, may have little choice but to revive the sector, according to some developers, who are forging ahead despite the uncertainty.

In Miami, for instance, plans are in motion for Legacy Hotel and Residences, a mixed-use tower from the developer Royal Palm Companies that is taking the hospital-hotel concept in a different direction.

Instead of situating its 256- room hotel and 30 000m² hospital side by side, as might be the case on some campuses, Legacy sandwiches the two entities into a single 220m high-rise the shape of a stapler.

Also included in the nearly $500 million (about R8.6 billion) project, which is set to break ground soon as part of the Miami Worldcenter mega-development, are condos, a full-floor fitness centre and spa, shops, bars and restaurants.

Someone who goes to the tower looking to, say, replace a damaged knee would undergo surgery in the Centre for Health and Performance, a 10-level facility at the tower’s base. Then, after being wheeled down halls and into a private elevator, the patient would begin a stay of a week or so in a hotel room above.

Sixteen suites with nurse service will be available for those needing greater attention, although patients with fewer needs will stay in typical hotel rooms, said Daniel Kodsi, chief executive of Royal Palm, a co-developer of Paramount Miami Worldcenter, a condo tower down the street.

The pandemic has not halted sales of Legacy’s 274 condos, whose studios start at $300,000 (about R5.1 million), but it has delayed the selection of an operator for Legacy’s $60 million hospital, which Royal Palm prefers to call a “medical centre” because it will lack an emergency room and offer only outpatient procedures.

The lobby of the Hilton Miami Dadeland in Kendall, Florida. Picture: Angel Valentin / The New York Times

Developers say the distinction is crucial. Some hotel guests are bound to feel uneasy about sharing space with people who have spent time in a hospital – a concern amplified by the spread of the coronavirus – even if the discharged patients pose little risk of infectious disease.

“You’re in a luxury hotel,” Kodsi said. “You don’t want to be around people who are dying.”

Still, as the pandemic intensified, Legacy made changes to allay fears. A medical-grade air-filtration system, previously planned just for the hospital, will now be used for the entire tower.

Plus, robotic cleaning devices that use ultraviolet light, once envisioned solely for operating rooms, will be deployed to disinfect gathering areas in the hotel and condo sections. And doors throughout the tower are being reconfigured to allow phones or voice commands to open them remotely, so no patient or guest has to touch knobs or handles.

Because the Legacy will offer such a germ-reduced environment, as well as services like medical checkups that can be reached by an elevator ride, the multifunction tower could also be a good candidate for a quarantine destination, should a pandemic hit again, said Stephen Watson, Royal Palm’s chief strategic officer for medical development.

“We are bringing the health care to hospitality, and the hospitality to health care,” Watson said.

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