Tummy Tuck, Anyone?

By Kate Robertson

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Yelapa, Mexico

Medical tourism. Do the words conjure visions of wealthy jetsetters lounging around a pool sipping margaritas while their nose job or breast enhancement incisions heal? Or of impoverished people being exploited for organ harvesting? The true definition of medical tourism is the travel of people to another country for the purpose of obtaining medical treatment, and despite any myths, this is a multi-billion (yes, billion) dollar industry and growing. And some say the growth potential is up to 35 per cent annually.

Most of us can understand why our US neighbours, with their historically higher medical costs and greater number of private medical services, are seeking alternative solutions at an estimated 1.2 million patients this year. But Canadians are also jumping on the medical tourism bandwagon with a reported 50,000 doing so in 2013. The exact number is hard to confirm as this statistic is not yet tracked.

While some Canadians are considering medical tourism to avoid waitlists for surgery such as hip and knee replacement or heart surgery, others are opting for procedures that aren’t yet legal in Canada, like liberation therapy treatment for multiple sclerosis or stem cell transplants, for dental surgery, which often isn’t fully covered by insurance plans, or for elective procedures like cosmetic surgery or fertility and reproductive procedures.

Perhaps it’s easier to understand the growth, when you learn the savings can be up to 90 per cent of the cost. According to Patients Beyond Borders, an independent expert resource of consumer information about international medical and health travel, a knee replacement cost in the US is $34,000, while the same surgery in Costa Rica is $9,500; implant-supported dentures $10,500 in the US, but only $4,200 in Mexico. And, in case you’re interested in some cosmetic surgery, a face lift in the US is roughly $12,500, while in Taiwan it would cost you only $5,600. While these are US figures, elective surgeries are not cheap in Canada either.

Some patients making the decision to travel out of country for surgery choose to arrange it on their own, researching their own destination and doctor. Josef Woodman, CEO and author of Patients Beyond Borders, recommends, among other things, that consumers refer to the Joint Commission International (JCI), an independent, non-profit organization that accredits hospitals worldwide to US standards of health care. The JCI website advises that “accreditation is the gold standard in global health care” and, to date, they have accredited 664 hospitals and clinical departments in more than 90 countries. And these numbers are growing quickly, as they expect a 20 per cent annual growth in the number of accredited organizations.

An increasing number of Canadian brokers and agents specialize in connecting you with an appropriate out of country facility and doctor. Glenn Sergius, owner of Inizio Health Solutions, and previously with Surgical Tourism Canada’s Vancouver office, represents one such company. “We provide a proven branded service easily and quickly arranging medical and travel items at lower cost, covering all the details, providing help when needed, proper insurances, and timing and small details that make for a successful journey. Waiting is not an issue.”

Important considerations to keep in mind when choosing an agent, Sergius cautions, are: reputation and experience of the facilitator; ask for “real” testimonials and patient references; make sure you get medical complications insurance protection; make sure they contract with major internationally accredited hospitals; ask a lot of questions; and check the surgeon’s credentials and track record.

If you’re wondering about insurance coverage, Deloitte consulting firm reports, to date, it has been challenging for insurance companies to offer coverage for medical tourism procedures because the Canadian government has not supported it. However, your provincial medical coverage may help. For example, the BC Medical Services Plan (MSP) has some coverage to help pay for elective medical care outside of Canada. There are certain stipulations, however, and you must obtain pre-approval. Your doctor must write to MSP to validate the medical necessity for a referral outside of Canada and provide information about what other treatment options have been explored elsewhere in BC and/or Canada. If the treatment is for cancer and involves radiation or chemotherapy, MSP requires a recommendation from the BC Cancer Agency. Travel and accommodation costs would be at your own expense.

Some of the top medical tourism destinations are Thailand, Mexico, Singapore, India, Brazil, Turkey and Taiwan. This list may be surprising, but as Sergius explains, “That other places in the world have equally sophisticated medical treatment available to Canadians is sometimes hard to get used to, and to think that there is better medical treatment elsewhere is, for a lot, at first unbelievable, then secondly amazing. For example, India and their hospitals specifically catering to the surgical tourism market remain very cost effective, fast, and the medical professionals are on leading edge of their specialities — that is why so much of the world goes there.”

Preferred procedures for the over 55s? Joint replacement surgeries are popular, as well as cosmetic procedures like tummy tucks and face lifts, says Sergius. “Most people in this age group are either early retired or close to retirement; have more disposable funds at hand; and are often willing to travel. Medical tourism is most attractive to this group as it satisfies two needs at once — people can get surgery, as well as a holiday combined in one trip.”

Clearly the medical arena is just one more area that is being influenced by globalization. If you are someone who likes being actively involved in your own wellness decisions, medical tourism may be for you. Just be prepared to do your homework first. 

Josef Woodman, CEO and author of Patients Beyond Borders, shares his top five tips for planning your own medical tourism trip:
Plan Ahead – the further in advance you plan, the more likely you are to get the best doctors, the lowest airfares, and the best availability and rates on lodging.

Research Your In-Country Doctor Thoroughly – this is the most important step of all. Narrow your search down to two or three physicians and conduct telephone interviews with them. Ask lots of questions.

Inform Your Local Doctors Before You Leave - Although they may not particularly like your decision, most doctors will respect your desire to travel overseas for medical care. When you return, you’ll not have to make an awkward call to your doctor when you most need a follow-up consult or a prescription refilled.

Insist on Your Native Tongue - If a clinic, physician, or health travel service that claims to serve international patients does not have a good grasp of a language in which you’re conversant, then politely apologize for your lack of language skills and move on.

Schedule Sufficient Time for Your Procedure and Recovery - As you plan your trip, ask the physician how much recovery time is advised for your particular treatment. Then add a few extra days, just to be on the safe side.




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