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Oh Canada! Top-Ranked Destination Warming Up to Medical Tourism

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Canadians accustomed to the cold realities of long lines for healthcare and limited access to specialists and new technology — not to mention sub-freezing winter temperatures — have always been warm to the idea of medical tourism. Even a former provincial premier once famously jetted off to Florida for open heart surgery, and has since been joined by countless others for procedures, treatments and second opinions at sunny international locations around the globe.

Buoyed by an insufficiently funded government healthcare system, Canadian hospitals are now looking to reverse the trend and entice potential international patients to their facilities in the Great White North and, at the same time, capitalize on the revenues they bring with them to reinvest in research and development programs for healthcare. It shouldn't take much prodding.

There is more to the allure of the great outdoors, according to the Medical Tourism Index, which ranked Canada among the most attractive destinations across the globe for medical tourism by Americans. Conducted by the International Healthcare Research Center, the Medical Tourism Index also ranked the United Kingdom, Israel, Singapore and Costa Rica most appealing to health travelers along three key dimensions and 34 underlying criteria. For the complete 2014 Medical Tourism Index, go to:

Canada topped the list for Country Environment and Medical Tourism Costs, which is good news for major healthcare providers like the University Health Network and the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre. Both already provide care to foreign patients for a reasonable price.

Canada has all of the characteristics that make medical tourism attractive to patients, especially from the United States, said Renée-Marie Stephano, President of the Medical Tourism Association. The rankings serve as a transparent means for private healthcare providers in Canada currently reviewing what steps should or should not be considered when examining avenues to increase revenue and expand international access to care.

Global Impact

University Health Network, which includes Toronto General Hospital, Toronto Western Hospital, Toronto Rehabilitation Institute and the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, has focused its international healthcare program on advisory and consulting services to nations like Kuwait and Qatar. That scope has the potential to broaden and include Caribbean and Middle East countries.

All Canadian hospitals treat foreign patients in emergencies. But, this year alone, UHN has treated some 51 international patients who were worth $4.5 million in treatment services.

It's a source of additional revenue to invest back into Ontario healthcare, said Dr. Nizar Mahomed, managing director of UHN International. But, I think it has to be done with great care to make sure it's done correctly.

Handle with Care

Revenue has already been used to purchase a new IT system at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. Other hospitals including Mount Sinai and the Hospital for Sick Children have caught on and are engaged in similar activities that encourage international patients to travel to Canada for care they pay for out-of-pocket or through their government or private insurance.
Critics contend that medical tourism patients will drain healthcare resources and personnel that should be committed first to Canadian taxpayers.

The less known fact of the matter is that reductions in provincial healthcare funding results in a reduced number of funded beds in each hospital and provincial law prohibits Canadians from utilizing unfunded beds.

This means that there is capacity to provide care for cash paying patients without taking beds from Canadians provided the hospital has the capacity in staffing.

Sunnybrook launched an international patient program in 2013, and has since treated a Barbados woman who paid $60,000 for breast cancer radiation treatment, and a Jamaica man who paid $20,000 for radiotherapy for prostate cancer.

Of the eight medical tourism patients treated, seven were for cancer and one was for ophthalmology. All were from Europe or the Caribbean.

Detractors of these efforts say only 5 percent of the profits gained from the medical tourism patients who visited Sunnybrook was reinvested in care for Canadians; thereby, raising questions about how financially beneficial a small number of wealthy or well-insured foreign patients can be to hospitals that are already cash-strapped.

Programs developed like the one at University Health Network are focused on sustainability and efficiency so that provincial services may be improved for Ontarian patients and effectively deliver better care in the process.

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