Debra Sandberg, the administrator at a high-end rehabilitation therapy center in Sarasota, recently set out on a new business mission: to turn the town into a player in the niche world of medical tourism.
It's an ambitious goal and it comes with a secondary, yet juicy element. Sandberg wants the business, Florida Med-Retreat, to infuse some much-needed capitalism into the national health-care debate. Says Sandberg: “Anyone who has socialized medicine will be a big network for us.”
The company, Florida Med-Retreat, is a partnership that includes the Sarasota Bay Club, Sarasota-based senior living property management firm Roskamp & Patterson and local orthopedic surgeon Dr. Edward Stolarski. Sandberg cites Canada and Europe as places Florida Med-Retreat will seek potential clients, in addition to U.S. cities in the northeast and Midwest.
“I didn't even know there was a medical tourism industry,” says Sandberg, the CEO of Florida Med-Retreat and also the administrator of The Inn at Sarasota Bay Club. “But this is for real.”
Sarasota economic development officials agree.
In fact, more than 30 medical practices in Sarasota County reported an interest in medical tourism, according to an Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County survey. Moreover, at least 15 practices have international clients, the survey found, with a focus on vision, hearing and orthopedics, says Virginia Haley, president of the Sarasota County Convention and Visitor's Bureau.
Haley and EDC President and CEO Kathy Baylis say the survey helped build word-of-mouth interest in the industry.
“This is not your traditional kind of tourism,” says Baylis. “To really have medical tourism, it's not enough to just have doctors doing the surgery. You also have to have the continuum of services.”
That's where Sandberg hopes Florida Med-Retreat fits in. The concept is to simultaneously plug Sarasota's first-rate attractions and its medical facilities, then provide concierge-style services from surgery through recuperation and rehab. Accommodations will be provided at the condos at the Bay Club, less than a mile from downtown Sarasota on U.S. 41. Says Sandberg: “[A patient] will be a VIP right through the whole process.”
Surgeons who will perform procedures through Florida Med-Retreat include: Sarasota-based Center for Sight founder Dr. David Shoemaker, who specializes in cataract and lens surgery; Dr. Thomas Sweeney, a leading local physician on minimally invasive endoscopic spine surgery; and Dr. Brian Schofield, an orthopedic shoulder surgeon.
The tourism side of the business, says Sandberg, will include trips to places near Sarasota, like Busch Gardens and the Dali Museum. Other trips will be closer to home, such as the Sarasota Opera House and beaches.
One early challenge Florida Med-Retreat faces is one familiar to the health-care industry: how to price services. The company recently joined the West Palm Beach-based Medical Tourism Association for assistance in pricing and other aspects of the industry.
A second challenge for Florida Med-Retreat lies in another task familiar to many businesses: how to find clients. The company recently hired its first employee beyond Sandberg, a marketing director who will use the Internet and other networking sources to generate interest.
“We are going to have to build our reputation,” says Pilar von Lazar, Florida Med-Retreat's marketing director. “People will have to hear about us.”