The Washington, D.C., Department of Health is working to designate MedStar Georgetown University Hospital as an international center of excellence as part of a program to help promote the District as a premier medical destination and attract foreigners to undergo medical procedures, participate in research and train with D.C.’s medical providers.

The program, in development for the past year, will announce specific projects later in the month that will begin in January 2015. The Children’s National Health System was also chosen for this designation.

Medical tourism is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as “travelling to another country for medical care,” and 750,000 residents of the United States travel abroad every year to undergo medical treatments.

D.C. DOH Director Joxel Garcia expressed interest in attracting international travelers to D.C. for medical care through packages that include medical procedures in addition to tourist attractions.

“What we are doing is very unique,” Garcia said. “We are going to create tourism packages to promote medical procedures. For example, a package can include the medical treatment or procedure as well as a visit to Congress or the White House.”

Garcia expects the program to be effective in attracting visitors to D.C., aiming for 7,000 visitors through the program in the first year and 10,000 in the second.

To ensure the program would play to the unique strengths of the hospitals in the District, Garcia conducted extensive conversations with D.C. medical institutions while building the program.

“The program will promote consortia between all of the hospitals in the District, working together to promote excellence in health care here in the District at the international level. Each institution will be able to offer expertise in the areas they choose,” Garcia said. “This program will amplify what each of those health care providers already do.”

With three airports in the D.C. area allowing for easy accessibility to the region, Garcia added that integrating D.C.’s strengths would bring more tourism to the district.

“We already have one of the strongest health care systems in America. We have great hotels, great hospitality and great transportation systems,” he said. “We are offering a framework that allows many great parts of D.C. to work together. I think that this will be a very good offering that will be very easy to sell.”

The medical tourism program will contribute to a White House initiative aiming to increase the number of visitors to the United States each year to 100 million by 2021 in order to create tens of thousands of new jobs in tourism in the United States and boost the national economy. Two million people visited the District last year from abroad.

“Encouraging more visitors to come to the United States to stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants, shop in our stores and explore this great country, will deliver a much needed economic boost while strengthening U.S. relations around the world,” Stephen Cloobeck, Chairman of Brand USA, a tourism promotion organization partnered with the White House on the initiative, said in a press release.

Garcia said that the influx of international patients into D.C. hospitals would not diminish the medical care of D.C. residents, explaining that for medical research institutions like Georgetown University in particular, the benefits of international exchange could bolster the medical care offered by the District.

“Having Georgetown, Johns Hopkins and [The George Washington University] here gives us a powerful platform to attract research,” he said. “Having more treatment, research and academia would make this a great opportunity for the District and make Georgetown University much stronger, although it is already very renowned.”

The Medstar Georgetown University Hospital will showcase its specialties in organ transplants and oncology as an international center of excellence in the medical tourism program. Nicole Duncan, assistant vice president of advocacy and international services at the Medstar Georgetown University Hospital, said that the hospital is committed to treating both international and domestic patients.

“Typically the process with our international patients is very planned. We know when they are flying here so we can have appointments scheduled for them. This in no way infringes on patients in the emergency room or in the clinic,” Duncan said.

While the hospital has seen a large number of severe cases in international patients from Middle Eastern countries, Japan, China and South America, Duncan noted that partnering with the DOH and other hospitals might allow the hospital to also attract international patients with more acute cases.

“Because we provide care to treat very complex diseases and illnesses, partnering with the District could be extremely helpful,” she said. “[Through] Dr. Garcia’s vision to expand the program beyond international patients who need immediate care to some of the less acute services, we would probably see an increase in the number of international patients.”

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