AUBURN, Maine — A former shoe mill here is set to become a five-star medical tourism facility that caters to wealthy Chinese.
The plan was announced Friday morning at a press conference in which a Chinese investment company, Central Maine Medical Center and city and state officials heralded what they call a unique opportunity.
So, just what is a five-star medical tourism facility? In Auburn, it will be a 200-room recovery center that can house at least 5,000 guests a year.
The investor behind the project is Miracle Enterprise, a group that has a number of health care initiatives in China, according to management representative Michelle Xu. She says their target clients are wealthy Chinese individuals who, upon their arrival at the future 5-star facility, will get a complete work-up on their health.
"So that would include physical examination, stem cell analysis and genetic analysis and testings, and after all of that is done we'll be able to analyze the health condition of that person and what kind of treatments he or she needs," she says.
Guests could opt for elective treatments such as anti-aging. Or they could arrive with known medical conditions, and Central Maine Medical Center is a willing partner to provide care, says President Peter Chalke.
"[There is a] very high rate of diabetes in China, which we're certainly well-situated to assist — very high rates of cancer, and we have a full cancer program," he says.
The medical tourism facility will serve as a recovery center, where 80 employees will tend to Chinese guests or locals who choose to stay there.
Xu says they're still working out pricing packages, but she's confident Auburn will be an attractive tourist destination because of what she describes as the clean air, water and food. Plus. Acadia National Park is just a two hour drive away.
"People are going to want to come here to enjoy the city and receive some medical treatments at the same time," she says. "And that will be a great vacation option for them as well."
"The Chinese represent a big market," says Joe Harkins, spokesman for the Medical Tourism Association. He says a lot of cities and states are jumping on the medical tourism bandwagon. "Health care can be a business — two-pronged — where you want to provide health and there's economic incentives involved with that too."
But Dr. Gil Welch of the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice is leery of that notion.
"Maybe it's good business," he says. "But is it good for health care in Maine? Boy, I'd say no."
What concerns Welch is the commercial attitude a medical tourism facility brings to health care, where the desire is to sell more product. He says American medicine already has a problem with medical overdiagnosis and treatment.
"It's important to realize it's very hard to make people who are well better," he says. "But it isn't hard to make them worse."
But Chalke sees the facility as a win-win that will help both Chinese tourists seeking medical care as well as the hospital.
"Well obviously, one of the things we have to do in a population like Maine that doesn't grow — we have a fixed number of citizens in this area — so it will bring new patients to our hospitals," he says.
Maine's Commissioner of Economic and Community Development George Gervais says the medical tourism facility could serve as an EB-5 regional center.
EB-5 is federal investment program that allows foreign investors to fast-track through the immigration process if they invest at least a half million dollars into a project that creates at least 10 jobs.
"I think it's an excellent example of when we welcome private investment and show appreciation for that investment, then it does come," he says.
Work on converting the old shoe mill to the recovery center will begin immediately, and is expected to be completed within two years.