Editor’s Note: When you conduct as many interviews as I have related to medical travel, you end up discovering many of the reasons that drive people to join the industry. There are those in pursuit of the pure business and financial opportunity. There are the tech people who like being at the front edge of innovation. There are the doctors and employers seeking to provide affordable care. And then there are people like Farrah Walsh whose motivation comes from personal experience and is driven straight from the heart.
Farrah Walsh is the founder of Minerva Journeys, a medical travel company that might be more appropriately described as a recovery and discovery company. I’ll let the interview serve to explain why.
Medical Travel Today (MTT): Let’s start with your background and what inspired you to start Minerva Journeys?
Farrah Walsh (FW): My background is in clinical research and drug development. I worked for a number of years in this industry, and am currently working with a large consulting firm involving two large clinical trials. So while I have a scientific background in developing medicine, it was a life-changing personal experience that brought me to medical travel.
I was involved in a very serious car accident in which I broke my neck and herniated two discs. As a result, I was paralyzed. The first option was surgery, but I wanted to try physical therapy at first. Unfortunately, my insurance company, which would have covered a very expensive surgery, didn’t want to pay for my rehabilitation after a six-month period even though I was making great progress. And so I was stuck managing my own care, deciphering my options, finding providers, and so on. It was based on that experience that I decided there needed to be a company that would help people figure out how they can take charge of their own healthcare when their insurance company won’t provide support.
Minerva Journeys was born because a large portion of my healing took place in Costa Rica. Not only is Costa Rica a warm and welcoming country, it has world-class care, and, for me and many others, an environment that invites relaxation, introspection and healing well beyond the body. I wanted to share that experience and create a virtual resource where people in need could confidently research international hospitals and recovery centers while also having knowledgeable people to get them quotes, resumes for doctors, recommend good hospitals and places to stay for recovery, all within context of their budget. I knew from personal experience that trying to tackle each of those things is an enormous burden and effort — especially when you’re operating from a point of need and not at your normal mental or physical capacity. So to have a resource to turn to, well, to me that’s a dream come true for those in need.
And the experience here truly matches the expectation and need. Here you can surround yourself with natural beauty for a few days in advance, do a cleansing if necessary, and get your procedure done by competent and caring hands. Then after, the recovery is so different from that in the States. Here, for as little as $85 per day, you can stay at a center with full-time nursing, someone to drive you to appointments, three meals a day, many on-site therapies, and truly personalized attention. Short of living with a family member who can give up their job or life to care for you, it’s very hard to find this kind of care — the kind of stress-free care that lets you truly focus on healing and not worry about details and dollars.
MTT: What was the timeframe for conception and launch?
FW: When I first conceived of the idea, I knew I needed to do some serious research and determine the right, qualified resources. I spent several years doing that. It all came together in 2010. That same year, I attended a medical travel conference and created contracts and partnerships there. In March 2011, I launched the website www.minervajourneys.com .
MTT: By some estimates, you’re a late starter to the industry. How has that served or hurt you?
FW: I think waiting till 2010 was a good idea. Not only for my research needs but because the acceptance and understanding of medical travel has come a long way in the past few years. There are still a lot of people who don’t know or understand the concept, but people are always positive and open to hearing about it.
The lack of understanding is both an obstacle and an opportunity. How best do you reach out to the masses and let them know the option exists? And that it’s not a little tin shack in a third world country? The challenge is to overcome that misperception with a story of great care, private rooms, affordable prices, fantastic surgeons, physical therapy in your room, and so on. It’s a great story.
MTT: What facilities do you work with in Costa Rica?
We work with six different centers of care, all of which are JCI-accredited, with ambulatory centers that are US-accredited.
Plus, we work with several US-accredited clinics for dental surgery and care. This is an exciting area for the type of savings we can offer consumers. Quite literally a porcelain cap that might cost you $3,000 in the US only cost $300 in Costa Rica. So even with a flight and a little travel, if you like, you’re still quite a bit ahead of the game.
As for care, we’re currently expanding our reach a bit. We’ve partnered with facilitators on Guatemala and Thailand, and will add India to our list of options in 2012. Also, we currently offer leading stem cell therapies in El Salvador for many severe autoimmune diseases – Crohn’s Disease, Lupus, Hodgkin’s Lymphomas, Type 1 Diabetes, which affects so many children. China is offering an exciting all-inclusive package (hotel, tours, plane tickets and more) for stem cell rejuvenation therapy, a new approach to anti-aging and replacing hormone therapy.
This year, we will be adding leading US Centers to our offerings as an option for people from the US and abroad. We recognize that the US still has some of the brightest and best medical doctors and researchers in the world. People are already travelling within the US to specialty centers like the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas, or the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins and many more. Right now, we’re looking to create those partnerships so that American centers are a part of the medical tourism movement, and not losing from it. It is also interesting to note that costs for a procedure such as heart surgery can vary about $40,000 depending on if you got it at UCLA in Los Angles or the Mayo Clinic, both leading centers in cardiology. When people are faced with a life threatening medical situation, they are already turning to Wikipedia to learn more about their condition. We are here to help them find the right center, setup travel and accommodations, and let them know about price savings even if they have health insurance since this all affects their co-pays — for the patient and their employer.
MTT: From where do most patients come?
FW: Most of our patients are Americans, but we’ve been getting a lot of searches from Europe. Our goal is to do more e-marketing in Europe this year. I have no doubt India will certainly hold a lot of appeal for that market given the proximity.
MTT: What type of care are most people seeking?
FW: We get a lot of preventive care patients – colonoscopies, comprehensive check-ups including screenings and scans…
MTT: Did you say colonoscopies? That’s not something I usually associate with medical travel.
FW: Oh yes. I just had a client whose insurance wouldn’t cover it, which is crazy to me as it’s something very critical to cancer prevention in men over 55. And really, who wants one? Anyway, in the US it’s about $3,000 for the procedure. In Costa Rica, it’s only $300. So if you’re uninsured or retired without coverage, this is, I think, the best option.
MTT: Interesting. Let’s go back to other procedures.
FW: Sure. We also handle complicated knee surgeries, a lot of patient inquiries for stem cell therapies, cosmetic surgery, LAP band and gastric bypasses. This is a big market we’ll be targeting in the year ahead. The estimate is that 65 percent of Americans are obese. We want to reach this audience with not just a surgery, but with a new approach to life — an approach they’ll have to embrace to be successful. We’re working on a new Web page dedicated to obesity with nutrition and health information, tips on preparing for surgery — both mentally and physically — and the same types of tips for after surgery. A change like this is huge and it affects all aspects of your life. Your health, your appearance, your relationships, how you shop, how you prepare food, even how you socialize. We plan to provide information on these types of things up front to improve the chances of success later.
MTT: Among your clients, what would you say is the primary motivation for the travel? Money? Availability of the procedure?
FW: Cost or final price is really the major driver. It affects which hospital they choose, which recovery center, which, if any, tours they choose to take. There are clients who just come for care and go in order to save the most money.
MTT: Are most insured or uninsured?
FW: We haven’t handled anyone with insurance.
MTT: How about anyone whose care was covered as employee benefit?
FW: Not yet. We have had inquiries recently but no one has been processed yet.
MTT: You mentioned new partnerships with hospitals in Thailand, Guatemala and the US as things on your to-do list What else is on that list?
FW: A big focus in the year ahead will be on building corporate partnership. We offer businesses a significant way to reduce healthcare costs. Getting that message out there and doing that, well, that’s our mission for 2012.
We’re looking to educate mid- to large-sized corporations and put together a board of MDs to review benefits packages and include medical travel as part of the plan. We’ll follow that up with employee presentations and education to provide a clear understanding of the opportunity.
We were just accepted into the StartUp America Partnership and now have access to this massive database of corporations in the US. Those are the folks we are going to target. Right now we’re in the process of putting together information to start that marketing effort. I’m feeling very confident that being a part of this with a message about healthcare costs — just the idea that with Obama Care, co-pays are going up from 20 to 30 percent — I think businesses are ready to listen and give medical travel real consideration.
MTT: And what about marketing to consumers?
FW: We really just rely on our website. Most consumers don’t go looking for a “place” to go first. They’re usually looking for the procedure first. Our site is structured to bring that information forward and then guide the user through the search process.
The other thing we’ll be adding and promoting are services in the wellness center and integrative medicine areas, especially in life-transforming areas. If someone’s got cancer or is paralyzed — like vets coming back from Afghanistan —there’s a lot we can do to help these people through the rehabilitation process. And it’s a process, not just exercise and PT. This is a very exciting whole mind and whole body approach that’s really needed for real healing to occur.
I believe when people go through any health situation it’s an opportunity to grow and take advantage for your own personal self and to connect with people around you. That’s what we’re focusing on with these programs.
We’re also in the early stages of creating rejuvenating programs at Mt. Kilimanjaro, Kenya and in Nepal. These will be really something…
About Farrah Walsh
The founder of Minerva Journeys Farrah Walsh has an extensive background in healthcare. Her experience includes working as a clinical research associate and as a contract CRA & program manager of medical operations for several major pharmaceutical companies. She has lived in India, Costa Rica and the United States and is fluent in six languages.