Saturday, August 28, 2004

Canadians Going to Third World for Medical Care

Wait lists fuel medical tourism
Patients travelling around the world to get quicker treatments
Richard Starnes
CanWest News Service
August 28, 2004

OTTAWA - The Canadian health-care system is helping fuel an exploding multibillion-dollar industry -- medical tourism.
Frustrated by longer waiting lists and unwilling to live in pain, an increasing number of Canadians are turning to bargain operations and hospital care in state-of-the-art facilities in Third World countries.
They get immediate attention, pay a fraction of the cost and may even get back a major share of the medical costs from their provincial health organizations.
They are not alone. Americans, Europeans and Asians are all flocking to a growing number of countries that have discovered an extremely healthy method for gathering foreign currency.
Medical tourism is booming in developing countries such as Malaysia, Thailand, Cuba, India, Jordan, Israel, Lithuania, Singapore and South Africa.
The growing phenomenon does not surprise Canadian health experts, although they have misgivings about the practice.
"If you can afford it and it's important to you -- and health care is important -- people are going to do it," says Canadian Medical Association president Dr. Albert Schumacher of Windsor.
"Is this promoting two-tier medicine? Two-tier has always been there. For years, executives have flown to the Mayo Clinic for three days where 20 different people examine 20 different body parts and they are scanned to death. More and more people are looking for a piece of that. It buys them peace of mind."
Schumacher admits the time it takes to get treatment is vital for many Canadians patients. "They must wait three months for a CAT scan, four months to see a specialist and six months to get operation time," he says.
However, Schumacher warns Canadians about travelling abroad for treatment. "I don't see Canadians in general being willing to compromise on standards," he says. "India (a major medical tourism centre) has 240 medical schools. We have enough trouble rectifying our own schools every three years. How do we evaluate those standards in hospitals half a world away?"
Canadian Health Association president Sharon Sholzberg-Gray is equally cautious.
"I have a great deal of sympathy for those who do decide to go out of the country," she says "But letting them go is no way to run a system."
As the debate grows, so does the size of the medical tourism industry.
India is leading the charge with its aggressive promotion of a burgeoning business.
"First World treatment at Third World prices" it boasts as it chases a market it predicts will earn the country $1 billion US by 2012. The country's leading hospital chain -- Apollo Hospitals -- says it has treated more than 60,000 foreign patients at its 37 hospitals in the past three years and the numbers are growing.
Exact costs are difficult to find because of the individuality of operations, but Indian hospitals are quoting prices like $4,500 US for hip replacement or orthopedic surgery and $7,500 US for knee surgery.
Malaysia reported over 70,000 medical tourists in 2001 and Jordan is looking toward 100,000 a year. Thailand, according to an Indian government survey, has integrated traditional tourism marketing with medicine so well it attracted a million patients last year.

© The Windsor Star 2004