Medical tourism (sometimes called health tourism or surgical tourism) is defined by the Government of Canada as the act of ''travelling to another country to receive medical care''. According to a recent study, more than 200,000 Canadians travelled abroad to obtain medical services in 2017, spending nearly $700 million on medical care, so it goes without saying that this is a significant tourist industry. However, it is not without risk and controversy. Let's take a look at this booming form of tourism.
There are many reasons why people seek medical care in a foreign country; some people try to avoid long waiting lists, others want to access treatment at a lower cost or undergo practices that are not used at home. The most common procedures include assisted reproduction, cosmetic surgery, dentistry and organ or tissue transplantation. Some of the most popular destinations are Brazil, Costa Rica, Cuba, Czech Republic, India, Mexico, Thailand and Turkey. As the industry is growing at an exponential rate, some travel agencies are starting to offer all-inclusive services combining holidays and surgery, including accommodation, transportation and translation services.
Be careful though; the picture is not as rosy as it seems! Medical tourism is a rather controversial practice, particularly among the Canadian medical community. Indeed, medical associations are rather concerned about the long-term impact of this health tourism and the consequences it can have on both the Canadian economy and health of the patients. The argument is that since surgical procedures and hospital facilities are not necessarily regulated as rigorously as in Canada, some patients might be exposed to risks of contamination during their stay, as well as to questionable practices and even botched work that is poorly performed. With little or no postoperative follow-up with a health care provider abroad, as well as few legal recourse possibilities, some Canadian physicians must take care of the sloppy work done by foreign surgeons or deal with the complications that followed.
A few things to consider before taking steps towards receiving medical treatment abroad;
Contact your travel and provincial health insurance providers, as there may be significant limitations on your coverage during your stay and upon your return following a surgical procedure done overseas.
Find information about all the risks you’re exposing yourself to abroad (possibility of scams, contracting a bacteria or virus, communication problems, participation in an illegal organ trade) and upon return (persistent infection, flight induced complications, lack of postoperative follow-up, no legal recourse, difficulty in treating diseases contracted abroad, etc.) in order to properly weigh the pros and cons.
Ask your health care providers abroad to see the waiver forms you will need to sign in order to properly assess the situation. Also, do not hesitate to ask for copies of the university diplomas obtained by surgeons on site, their number of similar procedures they have performed in their careers and what international accreditation the health centre has.
Discuss your travel plan with your doctor here in Canada to get a trustworthy professional opinion. He or she can also provide you with additional information about potential complications, follow-up options back home, give you insight about the medical terminology you are likely to hear and some alternatives that you might not have considered. Your doctor may also need to agree to share your medical record with the foreign health care providers.
Ask your health care providers abroad if they are willing to share information about the procedure with your doctor here in Canada. Make sure you have access to an interpreter on site to facilitate communication, as well as a person to contact if necessary in the days following the procedure in case of complications or if you have any questions about the healing process.
Make sure that a trusted person can accompany you or stay remotely informed of any development throughout the process.