Lee Health Advocates Health-Based Tourism  


Excellent Care, Excellent Weather

“This place is not North Dakota in March,” said Dr. Paul DiGiorgi, MD, F.A.C.S., a cardiothoracic surgeon with Lee Health. “Southwest Florida has great weather and great medical treatment, especially for seniors, with weather ideal for rehabilitation, as there is no ice or snow on which you can slip and fall. When you combine our weather with our outstanding care, you have the perfect combination for medical-based tourism – after all, we are not just a pretty face,” he says with a hearty laugh!

As to how Lee Health promotes this, it often begins with the relationship physicians here have with colleagues across the nation and beyond. “Many don’t realize people have been coming to us for surgeries for a while now, meaning we already have a lot of out-of-state patients,” he relates. “We reach out to their referring doctors and establish a relationship. Patients trust their physicians to refer them to the best treatment, so once those doctors are familiar with our expertise, they happily send their patients to us.”

In addition to personal relationships, Lee Health physicians provide data to the health system’s Advertising & Marketing Department: “We give them all the statistics, on where patients originate, doctors from other areas who already refer their folks to us, patient updates and outcomes and those sorts of things.”

Reversing the Flow

Dr. DiGiorgi calls this outreach, based on successful outcomes, crucial, as Southwest Florida remains a relatively new community compared to cities in the East and Midwest that go back 300 years or more. “Because we are not New York or Chicago, doctors and patients unfamiliar with us underestimate the quality of our care. This community, 50 years ago, basically had no population and rudimentary medical services; today everyone wants to live here and our medical facilities are cutting-edge. In the 1960’s, when few people called this area home, residents often went north for their procedures; now that is the reverse, with patients coming here.”

As proof, he points out, “Lee Health is one of the top 5 busiest patient centers in Florida, and is rapidly climbing in national rankings, as more people know our success. As a result, we need extra beds, as our patient load increases 10% every year, and that is hard to maintain with expansion. We perform over one thousand heart surgeries annually and are busting at the seams, and that does not count another 400 lung surgeries a year. We did nine heart surgeries yesterday alone, so it is badly needed and necessary. We open our new Shipley Cardiothoracic Center office at the very front of HealthPark Medical Center in 18 months, meaning we can handle our area’s growth for the next 15 to 20 years. We are one of the busiest places in the state for sure, and one of the best! I looked at and worked in a lot of hospitals before relocating here, and The Shipley Center and Lee Health are the Ivy League of healthcare.”

It is not just doctors who provide this excellence, Dr. DiGiorgi offers, “but the nurses and every member of our team. We perform surgeries successfully that others do not even attempt on high-risk cases due to advanced age. We, however, are very comfortable operating on these people because our demographic provides us with great experience, as 20% of our patients are over the age of 80. I recently performed successful surgeries on two 89-year-olds, and that is pretty crazy to a lot of my colleagues elsewhere, as they don’t do those surgeries that to us are routine.”

A Different Type of 80-Year-Old

It goes deeper than age, however: “Despite our older population, people who live here are far more active, especially in the winter and spring, as opposed to those up north. We each have people in their 80s and older, but we have a different type of 80-year-old in Florida, as you can be outside all year, in bright sunshine rather than under thick cloud cover, and that makes such a difference physically, mentally and emotionally.”

Because of this activity, “Southwest Floridians have a greater appreciation for health maintenance, and this translates into successful surgeries and outcomes,” says Dr. DiGiorgi. “The more you stay active and the better shape you are in prior to surgery, regardless of age, the quicker you recover, the shorter your hospital stay, the faster you are back up and around, making the entire process much easier on patients.”

Advocating this active lifestyle fits right in with the enhanced Lee Health philosophy of helping our community to maintain better health longer so, rather than treating you once you become sick or ill and fill emergency rooms and hospital beds, you do not require our region’s outstanding medical facilities. “The major thing we advocate is to optimize your good health through food and activity, so you don’t need us,” explains the doctor. “Unfortunately, many of those we operate on are the result of preventable diseases like obesity and smoking. We preach common sense – eat fruits and vegetables, get an hour of daily activity, drink water, avoid alcohol and smoking, sleep more, and you will not only see less and less of us, but you will see less and less of yourself, so to speak, through weight loss.”

The Tax Man

An important component of medical-based tourism involves Lee County leadership, “as they already focus on regular tourism and seasonal residents. We have tens of thousands who live here six months or longer, and they get sick like anyone else. Those who go back-and-forth need physicians in both places who work in partnership to keep our co-patients healthy. We really see this more and more with patients who live in states with high income taxes, and that is an amazing driver for people to come down here like crazy, as many are on relatively fixed incomes. Once they discover the excellence of our medical facilities matches the excellence of our weather, they opt for us and don’t even consider going back.”

He speaks from experience, as Dr. DiGiorgi himself moved to Southwest Florida 10 years from New York City, “I came here right out of training because of the excellence of the surgical group and the entire hospital situation, and I haven’t looked back!”

Dr. DiGiorgi says that medical-based tourism goes beyond the patient to their family. “When you have a hospitalized loved one, it is a draining experience. When your family member is asleep or undergoing tests, those here to monitor their care can go to the beach or dinner on the water or simply outside for a walk. You have to care for the caregiver, or they will be of little use to the patient, so get some sun and sand and recharge your batteries. We emphasize that their loved one is receiving wonderful care, whether they are in the room or not, so get some rest and relaxation and don’t worry about them because we can handle it. In a way, at Lee Health, we don’t just treat the patient, but we care for the entire family!”

For information on the Shipley Center or Lee Health, see www.leehealth.org.


Gary Mooney