This year, Passport Health will celebrate our 20th anniversary, and what a fabulous journey these past two decades have been. I could not be prouder of Passport Health’s progress over the years. As I reflect, I first and foremost want to thank all of the travelers who have entrusted their health to Passport Health, and our clinical personnel who have provided each and every client with nothing less than first class service and medical advice. Additionally, a huge thank you is owed to all of our clinic owners, managers, and administrative staff as well as our corporate team; you have all given so much to this business, and we would not be where we are today without the contribution each and every one of you has made. Thanks to our suppliers, partner organizations, and even our competitors who have helped inspire us to become the best, leading, and largest travel medicine provider in North America.
It was over 20 years ago that I noticed a gaping hole in the field of travel medicine. I was working as the director of a university health center; more and more of my students were traveling (often to underdeveloped countries), but pre-travel medical services were not readily available and were incomplete and fragmented, at best. Many students fell ill, often seriously, during an international trip, despite having received some immunizations prior to departure. Simply giving shots without proper counseling on travel health and safety was clearly not working; it was like handing a diabetic a vial of insulin with no counseling or dietary training and expecting that person to stay healthy! A comprehensive approach was necessary to keep travelers happy and healthy, and I worked on my plan to implement our holistic solution. I listened to what my students and traveling faculty wanted and needed to stay well overseas and combined these needs with my nursing background to develop a comprehensive program that included counseling, immunizations, specialty travel supplies, medications, evacuation insurance, and a follow-up service for booster shots. In 1994, I felt the program was ready for implementation, and Passport Health opened its first office in Baltimore, Maryland.
The business was immediately successful; we offered travelers convenient, expert, and professional pre-travel medical care. All Passport Health locations had easy parking; were conveniently located close to major roads; were staffed by medical professionals who were trained as experts in travel medicine, immunology, and vaccines; and offered clients a professional, comfortable, prompt, well-environment for their appointments. Passport Health was a one-stop shop for travel medicine: a place to get all vaccines, even specialty and hard-to-find shots like Japanese Encephalitis and Yellow Fever; travel accessories to promote health and safety; insurance; global cell phones; and an itinerary-specific consultation that covered everything from safe foods to eat to how to stay protected against mosquito-borne diseases like malaria and dengue fever. What a change a visit to Passport Health was from the other travel medicine options available – limited services at hospitals, unreturned phone calls on message lines, a fifteen minute visit with a provider sandwiched between other patients, or inexpert advice from providers who had no travel medicine training, nor the time to offer any destination-specific advice!
As I look back on those early years, I am reminded of why I started this business in the first place. One of my first travel clients was also one of my most memorable. A young law student came to my office in tears. She had recently married the love of her life, a young man from Ghana, and they had plans to travel back to his home country to continue the celebration with his family. This would not be her first trip to Ghana, however; she had traveled to Ghana to meet his family before the wedding, but, while overseas, she became severely ill to the point that she had to be hospitalized. Her experience was so horrible that she was terrified to go back to Ghana again, but she was willing (albeit with a healthy dose of trepidation) to do it for love. Upon reviewing her health records, I realized that her illness was actually a severe case of travelers’ diarrhea, the number one ailment to afflict international travelers, and she had simply not received sufficient counseling on how to avoid or treat this disease prior to her first trip to Ghana. I gave her some extra advice, and she was off to Ghana with her husband, equipped with strategies to stay well. Upon her return from Ghana, the young woman came to see me stating that she had followed my advice, and that was the reason she stayed healthy and happy this time. That was when I realized I was on a mission: to protect the health of each and every traveler so that he or she can enjoy and remember trips with only photos and fond memories.
Indeed, I wanted to improve the experiences of all travelers, beyond those I could counsel myself; in order to offer this dearly needed service to all travelers, it became clear that it was necessary to replicate the Passport Health model across the country. Therefore, to facilitate expansion, I sold the first Passport Health franchise in 1997. By 2000, there were 34 Passport Health locations in 15 states, and the business showed no signs of slowing down. Then, the terrible attacks of September 11th, 2001, occurred, and travel nearly ground to a halt, but Passport Health’s innovation did not. The events of 2001 gave Passport Health the opportunity to serve new communities: the US government and our armed forces.
Following the Anthrax attacks of that same tragic year, Passport Health became the only private company to ever respond to an act of bio-terrorism by administering the Anthrax vaccine to postal and tabloid workers up and down the East Coast. We received a call two days before Christmas in 2001 asking if we could send doctors and nurses to multiple sites. Initially, we offered counseling and antibiotics. However, in an effort to help calm the public hysteria that was setting in, the CDC decided to offer the Anthrax vaccine for post-exposure as well, but doing so required training on Investigational New Drug protocols and completion of all the attendant paperwork since the FDA had only approved the vaccine for pre-exposure at that point. For eight weeks, we worked tirelessly to comply with constantly changing protocols, and I am proud to say we saved numerous lives in the process due to a combination of medical expertise with a lot of grit, determination, and hard work.
As we are all aware, the September 11th terrorist attacks prompted a military build-up, but the Department of Defense was not fully prepared to handle all aspects of pre-deployment mass vaccination. However, Passport Health was ready and able to augment their service, and the Department of Defense called on us to vaccinate National Guard and Reserve units across the country to ensure they were protected against disease during their overseas tours of duty. As the build-up continued, Passport Health was able to serve in yet another capacity by operating a 24/7 global vaccine call center to provide vaccine information for the military personnel and the medical community at large. The US Department of Defense called on Passport Health to assist during these troubled times, this time to institute a Smallpox vaccination training program, as a further protective measure for our men and women in uniform. The general medical community was very knowledgable on the robust reactions to this vaccine, but Passport Health was able to provide training to help fill this knowledge gap. I am proud and honored to have played some small role in protecting the health and safety of the brave men and women who serve our country.
While the size and scope of the Passport Health business continued to expand, partially in response to geo-political changes, it was also time to respond to changes in technology as well. By the early 2000’s the Internet was playing an increasingly larger role in business development, and it did not take a crystal ball to know that the Internet, and its impact on healthcare, was here to stay. I began to invest heavily in the development of a proprietary Electronic Medical Record and Vaccine Registry system to provide all clients with standardized, streamlined, and convenient access to their health records. Now, as fewer individuals have a Primary Care Provider and instead receive healthcare services from a range of sources, having a single repository for health records has become a profoundly needed service, and one that continues to differentiate Passport Health from others trying to compete.
As proud as I am of Passport Health’s past, I am even more excited about our future. Over the past few years, we have greatly expanded the corporate team and the divisions these team members manage. We now have over 230 clinics in the United States and Canada, with plans to expand across the US and into additional countries. Our network of clinics now serves over 1,200 corporate clients, including many Fortune 500 companies, in addition to the 95,000 individual travelers and clients we see on a monthly basis. We have expanded our service range to include onsite flu and other vaccination events, specialty physical examinations, and vaccine credentialing services. We continue to proactively fill niche healthcare areas, but always do so with the superior service and attention to detail that have driven the Passport Health business model from day one.
Have I done everything perfectly over the years? No! Would I change a single thing about the Passport Health journey? Absolutely not! If you don’t take a bit of educated risk along the way, you will never move forward. What matters is to stay focused, passionate, and continually look for ways to improve, a credo that I, and every team member, adhere to wholeheartedly here at Passport Health. Our steadfast support of concierge, client-focused care continues to drive us to find ways to streamline processes while keeping superior patient care at the forefront of all operations.
Fran Lessans, RN, MS
Passport Health Founder, President and CEO