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Caribbean Medical Tourism Industry to be scrutinized

Renée-Marie Stephano
Global Healthcare Accreditation
Industry News

The Caribbean's emerging health tourism industry in the Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica and other countries may soon come under close foreign scrutiny. That's going to happen when some Canadian researchers begin studying study the facilities and quality of service being provided to patients from some of the world's richest nations when they turn to Caribbean destinations for health care services.

But the Caribbean isn't alone in being placed under an academic microscope. Canada's Simon Fraser University which established a Medical Tourism Research Group four years ago is sending some health professors and other researchers to Mongolia, India and Guatemala during the next year to study what the countries are offering foreign patients, the risks involved and how the growing sector is impacting on local health care services.

The Caribbean's emergence caught the eyes of Canadians generally and health professors and researchers in particular when a group of American investors decided to transform an old unused hospital in Barbados into a modern facility designed to serve foreign and local patients.

In addition, fertility centers have opened their doors or are being planned in different destinations to attract couples from Britain, North America and elsewhere for treatment so they can have children; and offshore medical schools have continued their operations in Grenada, St. Kitts-Nevis, St. Maarten and other islands san American offshore medical schools with eyes on Caribbean and foreign students, the medical tourism industry is attracting increasing attention abroad. And that high visibility has raised questions about risks, services and challenges.

Patients from more economically developed countries are flocking to developing countries to receive treatment for everything from elective cosmetic procedures to complex surgeries such as organ transplants and reproductive treatment, controversial stem cell procedures and multiple sclerosis liberty treatment, Simon Fraser University said on its website.

The medical tourism industry is booming. But there is a surprising lack of academic research into the industry size, the ethics and risks of medical tourism, and the effects it can have on developing countries and local health services.

As examples of what has stirred its interest in what are being called patients without borders, the University cited the case of Barbados which is being used by American investors to recruit U.S. and Canadian physicians to buy time-share style membership in a renovated hospital and bring their patients there for surgery.

Then there is Chennai, India, which was attracting Canadians in surprising numbers seeking orthopaedic surgery in order to bypass wait lines at home and procedures not readily available in Canada such as hip resurfacing, SFU stated.

We found that many Canadians are relying on informal testimonies and anecdotal information from the internet to make important decisions for surgical care, said Dr. Valorie Crooks, a Simon Fraser University associate professor of health geography.

I think people would be surprised to know that people are choosing to go abroad for medical care more often that'd think, added Professor Crooks whose team will also examine the role of caregivers and the impact of medical tourism on local health care in developing countries.

There's a lot of public discussion of wait times as the reason people go abroad for surgery, but from a our research we know the things prompting Canadians to go abroad are much more diverse, added Crooks.

Simon Fraser University's studies in the Caribbean and other countries are being financed by a (Canadian) $520,000 grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health.

There's a lot of speculation that medical tourism is great for locals because it brings in money and jobs, said Prof. Crooks, But on the other hand it shifts the focus to high-end surgeries and facilities for treating international patients. There is very little evidence one way or another to prove these two theories.

Hence the need for the studies.

SFU which is based in Vancouver, British Columbia, has about 30,000 students, 100,000 alumni and almost 3,000 faculty and staff. It's often described as a student-centered, research driven, community engaged tertiary level educational institution that engages the world.

The Bahamas is moving to attract foreign patients, Jamaica has made plans to follow suit and Barbados is up and running with its plan to link foreign patients to the conventional tourism industry which has been under pressure due to the global economic downturn.

By Tony Best

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