Can Belize become a medical tourism destination?


Local politicians have talked up the potential of Belize as a medical tourism destination that could rival Costa Rica for American business, but is it possible?

The country offers dental tourism to Americans and is considering expanding medical tourism, but local doctors are not convinced that there is spare capacity.

Formerly known as British Honduras, Belize was the UK's last colony on the American mainland and still maintains strong ties with Britain. Belize is not a medical tourism destination by any standards, though proposals to build facilities and begin promoting it are being considered. Belizean doctors generally come from abroad, some as volunteers to help the locals, and the vast majority work in publicly funded clinics or hospitals with very little time and resources for special care. However there are a few doctors that run their own private medical and dental practices, with some even advertising to foreigners. A few people have visited Belize as medical tourists, often enjoying Belize's laid-back atmosphere as a great place to recover.

But the island only has a population of 138,000 and few towns, so talk of rivaling Costa Rica, which has cities, a population of 4.7 million, internationally accredited hospitals etc is optimistic!

Most available medical procedures are cheaper in Belize than in the USA but most locals and permanent residents head north to Mexico for treatment, where costs are lower, facilities are better and more procedures are available. Facilities, equipment and doctors in Belize are in extremely short supply, so the range of available treatments is limited at best.

The government plans to promote medical tourism and is encouraging overseas investors to set up in the country, but the investors want to bring in US doctors, which the locals oppose. The Belize Medical and Dental Association (BMDA) does not support medical tourism.

Belize has a problem with violent crime, much of it drug-related, and the trafficking of narcotics to the US. In 2011 Belize was added to a US blacklist of countries considered to be major producers or transit routes for illegal drugs.

The Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) and the Belize Trade and Investment Development Service (Beltraide) recently held a public workshop on medical tourism.

The IADB hired a Costa Rican medical tourism consultant, Massimo Manzi, who presented an overview of the study he is leading at this workshop. Beltraide is committed to developing a sustainable medical tourism approach that will benefit Belize, and Belizeans.

Manzi emphasized what Belize must do to become successful long-term in this challenging market. He confirmed that there is great opportunity for Belize in this market. He pointed out that the price of entry is high and that unless it had the backing of local doctors it was doomed to fail. Belize has few specialist doctors and few hospitals, with no international certification.

Belizean doctors argue that the government has yet to institute medical laws and regulations. Dr. Joel Cervantes, of the Belize Medical Association stresses that since 1999 his organization has pushed the Ministry of Health to pass a Health Act, and health regulations. As of yet nothing has been passed.  He states that this first step must be accomplished prior to proceeding with any medical tourism plans in Belize.

Locals, including doctors, have accused the government of not waiting for the study or any local agreement, and issuing permits for future medical tourism facilities. The doctors are very unhappy that some of the permits do not expect to use any Belizean doctors or nurses. After the workshop, the government has tried to backtrack by claiming that the permits have been put on hold until Belize’s medical tourism plan is completed; but some local doctors do not believe the politicians.



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