ORLANDO, Fla. — Our tourist economy is making a rebound. Our beaches and theme parks have been busy, and Orlando International Airport was recently named one of the busiest in the world, after having taken a major hit during the pandemic.
Despite that, there is uncertainty about the future of one type of travel as COVID-19 continues: medical tourism. Experts worry the United States’ initial response to COVID-19 may make this type of travel slow to make a comeback.
Halfway across the world in his homeland of Romania, Alex was a happy, rowdy little boy; until one day, he wasn’t.
“The story starts one year ago, when he was playing inside the house, and suddenly he fell down and started to feel sick,” Alex’s mother Corina Gologus said via Zoom.
After months of living at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando, the family is back home and healthy. Alex came to America through a visa to have brain surgery, after doctors in Romania told the family the location of a tumor was too difficult for them to access.
“We chose to go in the United States, because we chose the doctors, and in fact as a parent, you want the best for your kids. No matter what cost, no matter how hard it is and how difficult it is,” Gologus said.
Dr. Samer Elbabaa is the pediatric neurosurgeon who helped save Alex’s life.
“When the family reached out to us, toward the end of the difficult parts of the pandemic, we just put all our efforts together to give the child the best surgery possible, in a safe and effective manner,” Dr. Elbabaa said.
In 2017, pre-COVID-19, the American Medical Journal estimated that 14-16 million people worldwide traveled to another country for a medical procedure; and 1.4-million of those were Americans leaving the United States for treatment, as our health care costs are among the highest in the world. Those numbers were expected to increase by 25% per year, but the pandemic all but closed off cross-border health care services due to travel restrictions and lack of space in hospitals as emergent coronavirus patients sought care.
“COVID can be challenging when it comes to travel restrictions,” Dr. Elbabaa said. “Fortunately, we managed to get them in at the right time, at the right place.”
Even now, as restrictions ease and visitors return, questions remain about how international views of the United States health care system, and how the country tackled COVID-19, will impact future medical tourism.
For Alex’s mom, she would take the trip a million times over.
“It was very hard, and I cried every day and every night,” Gologus said. “Now, I’m smiling, because now, he’s OK.”
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