Patients have long crossed from Detroit to Windsor, and vice versa, for health care. A new partnership seeks to make Detroit and Windsor a health care free trade zone. (Ricardo Thomas / The Detroit News)
As Detroit struggles with its present and ponders its future, it might look to the economic promise of one feature that makes it unique — an international neighbor that is as close as any of its suburbs.
Sharing a border well known as one of the friendliest in the world, Detroit and Windsor are perfectly positioned to become a health care free trade zone for medical education, innovation in the creation of medical devices and collaboration.
Both cities, as partners, stand to increase the economic benefits of their positions on either side of the gateway served by bridge and tunnel across the narrow stretch of water that gave Detroit its name.
We are already linked in many ways. Even the airport code for Detroit Metropolitan Airport – DTW – symbolizes the link between Detroit and Windsor.
Historically, the imaginary line between these American and Canadian cities has been a border in name only. While it’s true that post-911 restrictions have made travel through our gateway a little more cumbersome, we continue to go back and forth for dinners, shopping and day trips, we go back and forth for sporting events, and we go back and forth for health care.
There have been several areas of progress in international health care collaboration between the U.S. and Canada, much of it centered in Southeast Michigan and Southwest Ontario.
Students have benefited from educational exchanges. We have engaged in international symposia. Our citizens routinely pass through the gateway to work in health care on either side of the Detroit River, as have patients seeking specialized treatment.
For instance, Detroiters have gone to Windsor for years to get Lasik procedure and Windsorites have come to U.S. hospitals for treatments not readily available in Canada. Many lives have been saved by emergency transfer for medical care, a short drive across the river rather than 2-3 hours away on the 401 to London or Toronto.
As in the case of Lasik, which was available in Windsor years before the laser procedure was cleared for use in the U.S. Canadians have a far more efficient approval process for new medical devices. That process also green-lighted non-surgical heart valves in Canada while American physicians were prevented from using them at home.
On the other hand, we in Detroit are blessed with incredibly sophisticated hospitals and specialists that are not available in Windsor. Can we come together to create a whole better than the sum of the parts? That’s the vision for our Gateway Medical Innovation program.
Let’s start with support for initiatives in health care education.
We should collaborate on a strategy to ease the process for educational visas between Windsor-Essex County and Detroit, and create mutually beneficial programs for student exchanges in health care disciplines. This is something no other border jurisdiction in the world can offer. Students can gain an international educational experience while still placing their head on the same pillow each night. In collaboration with industry, we can tailor more, enhanced international symposia stressing advances in medical technology — a booming sector.
To play off this, let’s move on to creating a Center for Innovation in Medicine as a catalyst for device development, physician training and research in a unique collaboration between Henry Ford Hospital, the universities of Windsor and Western Ontario, community doctors, entrepreneurs and industry.
A Genomic and Health Consortium could create the infrastructure necessary to build a collaborative approach to personalized medicine, and a similar effort in population sciences could bring mutual advances in environmental health.
Small steps toward this bigger, broader free trade scheme have already been taken in medical treatment.
When needed by our Canadian partners, Henry Ford Hospital provides advanced care services, particularly for cardiac conditions, unlike any immediately across the river. Windsor and the rest of Canada offer access to government-approved, highly innovative medical devices — as was once the case with Lasik’s lasers — that have not yet been given the nod by our Food and Drug Administration.
This “approval gap” between United States and the rest of the world is widening. Replacement heart valves leap to mind. The newest generation can be fixed in place through minimally invasive catheters, sometimes while the patient’s heart still beats.
To treat his patients which such devices, one of Henry Ford’s foremost cardiologists and researchers recently obtained the proper licensing to practice in Windsor.
He is not alone. An entire industry has grown around the practice of “medical tourism” by Americans and Canadians seeking otherwise unavailable care on either side of the gateway.
As we have explored the nearly unending opportunities for free exchange of health care between Southeastern Michigan and Southwest Ontario, we’ve developed others who share our vision of “one world” health services and the economic development that it offers.
We want to expand these opportunities in public and environmental health, research and development — the full spectrum of the health care industry — for mutual benefit and an even greater reputation as a region that already is leading in medical treatment and education for both nations.
We can create jobs here in Detroit by attracting medical device companies that would have easier access to initial clinical trials done in Windsor. It’s far more convenient for them to come to Detroit than to go to Europe or South America to conduct such trials.
The adage, “Good fences make good neighbors,” may be true in a general sense, but Detroit and Windsor have proven every day for many decades that there is occasionally an exception.
Both cities, both regions, can benefit in even more and greater ways by taking advantage of what now sits in front each — the pieces of a medical free trade zone that, when formalized, can be the envy of the health care world.
John Popovich Jr., M.D., is president and CEO of Henry Ford Hospital.
David Musyj is president and CEO of the Windsor Regional Hospital.