The Medical City at Lake Nona is fast becoming the newest attraction of Orlando's tourism industry.
With biotech research outfit Burnham Institute, the Veterans Hospital and the University of Central Florida's medical school about to come to fruition, officials are pitching Orlando as the ideal destination for medical conventions and medical tourism.
From expert speakers to medical-training facilities and high-end hotel rooms, officials say Orlando has what it takes to draw health-care conferences -- and the thousands of doctors and medical professionals that come with them.
"We've got a lot of great infrastructure coming in," said Gary Sain, chief executive officer of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau. "Obviously, we've got competition and obviously we've got some things we need to do."
At the same time, the area's hospitals and medical facilities are drawing visitors to Orlando for specialized medical procedures, such as minimally invasive surgery at Florida Hospital or cancer treatment at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
Sergio Moura, a 52-year-old resident of Brazil, was diagnosed with prostate cancer about three months ago. He asked his doctor for advice.
"He said the best man you can have is Dr. [Vipul] Patel in Florida," Moura said. "Two months later I was there at the hospital . . . to have my surgery," Moura said. He paid $50,000 out-of-pocket for the surgery, twice what it might have cost in Brazil.
The idea of "medical tourism" was presented to a group of industry leaders in mid-September, and already organizers are assembling a group of high-level executives to move the initiative along.
When it comes to medical meetings, Orlando is already a top destinations, competing with cities such as Chicago, San Diego, Las Vegas and Atlanta for the meetings of top medical associations. But the visitors bureau estimates Orlando has not done business with about half of the 1,500 medical associations they have identified as potential clients.
"Health care is about a quarter of the entire meetings and convention industry," said Frank Skinner, director of marketing and information systems for the Healthcare Convention & Exhibitors Association. "There's always a lot of potential to attract more health-care meetings, just because there's so many of them."
There are plenty of obvious targets: the Radiological Society of North America, the 33rd-largest trade show in the United States, has met in Chicago for years. And the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, which draws about 30,000 attendees, hasn't met here since 2000.
"We'd like to get them back to Orlando," said Kathie Canning, deputy general manager of the Orange County Convention Center.
Families tag along, too
Medical meetings are considered one of the most recession-proof sectors of the conventions industry, with little drop-off after Sept. 11, 2001 -- when other meetings suffered. Since the start of the decade, the medical meeting industry has increased at an annual rate of 3.4 percent, when factors such as attendance, number of exhibitors, net square footage and revenue are considered.
"The industry has been very resilient and posted very solid growth since 2000," said Daryl Cronk, director of research for the visitors bureau. "The outlook for the industry is very positive."
One of the reasons for that resiliency is that physicians are required to complete certified continuing medical education credits, or CMEs, to maintain their license.
The CMEs help them keep current on their area of practice -- and one way to get credits is to attend live events such as lectures or panel discussions, according to the American Medical Association.
"They're not just meetings with vendors," said Deborah German, dean of the UCF College of Medicine. "They're where they're going to get the continuing medical education credits."
And in Orlando, there's a chance to pair educational conventions with leisure, "as long as it doesn't compromise the education part," said Beth Brunner, chief executive officer of the Emergency Medicine Learning & Resource Center, which holds six international medical training conferences in Orlando each year. Accrediting organizations "want to see the substantive education and learning take place first and foremost. They're very, very attentive to this."
Orlando's tourism executives hope that medical professionals will bring their families -- who will visit theme parks, shop at places like the Mall at Millenia and golf or dine at area businesses.
"While they're expanding their mind, their family's enjoying the No. 1 leisure destination in the world," Sain said.
From an economic development standpoint, executives are hoping that medical meetings will help expose Central Florida's growing biotech cluster to others in the medical field.
"I think that probably the best advantage is that it shows the area off," said John Fremstad, vice president of technology industry development with the Orlando Economic Development Commission. "When those decision makers come to town, we don't have to spend money to go visit them."
Sara K. Clarke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5664.