Second medical firm targets the Bahamas

A second company interested in offering health-related services from the Bahamas, boosting efforts to stimulate medical tourism, is expected to submit documentation to the National Economic Council (NEC) for approval, says the Minister of Tourism.

Nettie Symonette, owner of Nettie’s ‘Different of Nassau’ resort on Cable Beach, has confirmed that she has received an offer for her property from addiction treatment providers, Ibocure – already with final approval from the NEC to set up in the Bahamas. Ibocure believes that her property as an ideal location for its addiction treatment centre. Ibocure’s owner, US-based Dr Mark Puleo, says the company – which has received the backing of the Ministries of Tourism and Health and the Bahamas Medical Association – could begin offering its Ibogaine drug to medical tourists by early 2011.The drug has not been approved by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) in the US, and is said to eradicate substance abuse in less time than other addiction treatments. $2 million has already been raised to start-up the project, and several other US investors are investing. Dr Puleo no longer has the right to practice medicine in the US after being cited by the State of Florida for reselling and redistributing prescription drugs, an act that was prohibited under the supplier’s terms. Ibocure recently trademarked a treatment using the psychedelic drug ibogaine as “nature’s cure for addiction”. Made from the root of an African shrub, Ibogaine is currently undergoing clinical trials in the US, where it has been illegal since the 1960s. It is said to eliminate drug craving among addicts with minimal side effects.

The Ministry of Tourism has declined to identify the second firm until it has submitted documentation to the National Economic Council for approval. The ministry says it has identified the business, identified the location and the investors who were prepared to fund it so the only things left are approval from the Medical Association and the NEC. It also says that other companies are expressing interest in potential medical tourism ventures in the Bahamas, particularly on cosmetic surgery, treatments that have been authorised in some developed countries but are still awaiting approval in the US, and treatments that require long periods of rehabilitation.

Medical tourism offers the Bahamas an opportunity to expand the economy and raise employment levels. The immediate advantages to medical tourism companies are a tax-free income and a more relaxed regulatory environment. The danger for the local tourist is of attracting companies because of looser regulation that may be unable to set up anywhere else. Healthcare consumer group Bahamas Patient Advocacy comments, “The cost savings of medical treatment in the Bahamas are a worthy consideration for medical companies: lack of regulatory effectiveness = lack of accountability = savings on operating costs = greater profits. There is nothing inherently wrong with a tax-free income that enhances profit. One likes to believe that the primary objective of a healthcare company is quality service and positive patient outcomes. But a company locating in the Bahamas intends to enhance the profit aspect of the business, because regulatory environment requirements are less, and the track record shows that such requirements as may exist here are not enforced. Economic benefits have to be balanced by effective provision for the welfare and safety of the patients, the same people expected to generate these economic benefits.”

Concern is real, as the island has had problems before. In 1997 American psychiatrist Dr William Rader opened a centre in Nassau to offer controversial stem cell treatments. He refused independent testing of his product by legitimate researchers and claimed to have discovered a cure for AIDS. A critical US television report prompted the government to close Rader’s clinic in 2000. The Immune Augmentative Therapy Centre opened in Freeport in 1977 promoting a treatment that claims to restore the body’s natural ability to kill tumours, although there is little evidence that it works. In 1985 there were reports of HIV contamination of treatment materials and the clinic was closed on the advice of the Pan American Health Organization. But after taking preventive measures, it was allowed to reopen. Despite this track record, local health groups accuse the Ministry of Tourism of favouring treatments that have been authorised in some developed countries but are still awaiting approval in the US; including high intensity focused ultrasound therapy for prostate cancer, and minimally invasive heart valve replacement.

The National Ethics Committee reviews all proposals on a quarterly basis. Facilities also must be approved by the Bahamas Investment Authority that seeks the advice of the Ministry of Health. Once approved the project must apply for a business license and any necessary work permits. This process can be lengthy.