Foreign patients flying to Florida for medical treatment, Tampa Bay seeing financial benefit

Medical tourism providing economic boost
Posted at 5:27 PM, Nov 17, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-17 17:27:23-05

We know people from all over the world love to visit Tampa Bay for the sun and sand. 

But ABC Action News has learned, our area is attracting hundreds of out-of-town guests looking for life-saving healthcare. 

"I'm willing to do whatever it takes to get her better," said Marvin Diotte. 

Diotte is on a mission, crossing borders and seeking help for his daughter who suffers from Lyme disease. 

The Diotte's traveled more than 1,200 miles from Ontario, Canada and spent $150,000 of their own money for help they say she can't get in their home country.

"We'll stay until we have to but after the six months, we're considered illegal aliens," said Diotte. 

Dozens of patients and their families are receiving treatment at Sponaugle Wellness Institute in Oldsmar. Many are living in hotels and local Airbnb's, staying for up to six months, the maximum time allowed by the government for temporary visits. 

Dr. Rick Sponaugle estimates 90% of his patients are from out-of-state with 20% of that clientele traveling from Canada. 

These temporary medical guests are providing a unique financial boost for the local economy. 

"Roughly 150 people on any given day, are eating in restaurants, they're staying in hotels, they're spending lots of money," said Dr. Sponaugle. 

Area counties including Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco recently chipped in $200,000 to study how Tampa Bay can become a destination for medical tourists. 

According to the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, the Medical Tourism Association is considering holding its 2017 conference in Tampa. 

"I was shocked at how our health care system fails lyme patients in particular," said Cecile Gough from Canada. 

Gough spends five days a week hooked to a customized, antibiotic I.V.  The former oncology nurse is now encouraging others to fly south for the specialized treatment she's undergoing. 

"I came here walking with canes and I don't need them very often anymore," said Gough. "A total lifesaver and a game changer."