Medical tourism offers patients choice, but with costs to others

Medical tourism – traveling abroad for health care – is a growth industry. But although it can offer patients faster and cheaper alternative care, it’s not without its drawbacks

A medical tourism trade show came to Ottawa last weekend, according to a report in the Ottawa Citizen.

Destination Health, which ran Saturday and Sunday at the Shaw Centre, featured offerings from 30 hospitals and clinics from several countries.

Medical tourists seek healthcare in other countries, according to the Citizen. They do so for several reasons, from cutting down on long wait times to getting access to newer – and sometimes unproven – treatments. Some travel abroad because treatment is cheaper overseas. For instance, breast implants cost about US$10,000 in the United States, but only $3,500 in India, according to the Citizen. And liposuction, which costs about US$9,000 in the States, can be carried out in Mexico for just $2,800.

But show organizer Pablo Castillo said cosmetic surgery wasn’t the only treatment medical tourists looked for. Some go overseas for stem cell therapies not yet proven in Canada. Another popular procedure is gastric bypass surgery.

“People wait for years to get gastric bypass,” Castillo told the Citizen. “They can have it right away in other countries.”

Castillo runs a company called MedBrick, which facilitates travel for medical treatment. He said many medical tourists head overseas for earlier access to vital care like cancer and cardiac treatment.

“People who are told they only have two years to live, they want to explore other alternatives,” he told the Citizen.

Medical tourism is a growth industry in many countries. In 2002, Dubai Healthcare City opened as a “free economic zone” to encourage medical tourism. India, meanwhile, offers a medical visa good for up to a year.

Patients Beyond Borders, which promotes medical tourism, estimates that 11 million people travel abroad every year for health care. The organization says the market is growing at a pace of 15% to 25% per year.

Medical tourism has its drawbacks, however. Caring for medical tourists might take a doctor’s attention from local patients, for instance. And taxpayers can end up on the hook at home; a study published in the Canadian Journal of Surgery found that more than $560,000 in taxpayer money has been spent treating bariatric medical tourists for complications from surgery performed abroad between 2012 and 2013.

“In my experience, there are winners and losers in the industry,” Valorie Crooks, a professor at Simon Fraser University, told the Citizen. “Medical tourism allows consumers more choice, and it allows the recipient countries to enhance their own medical systems. But sometimes it also cuts out local patients in destination spots.”