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The true cost of medical tourism

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How quick and cheap treatment abroad can prove costly to your health, and our health-care system

A study published last month in the Canadian Journal of Surgery (CJS) examined costs borne by the public health care system of Alberta because of patients returning with complications after having bariatric surgery outside of Canada. The study said the estimated extra cost of $560,000 a year to the Alberta health system was an “extremely conservative estimate,” and doesn’t account for long-term care, hospital stays, health care providers [nurses, dietitians, psychiatrists] or health care costs [total hospital stay, imaging, blood work]).

“The argument [ in support of medical tourism ] goes, if you have somebody who is getting some kind of surgery abroad and they’re paying out of pocket, then that’s actually saving the Canadian system money. But on the other hand, it’s well documented that when things go bad, they can go bad pretty catastrophically and be incredibly expensive — millions of dollars in some cases.”

The CJS estimates a complication rate of 42 to 56 per cent for out-of-country weight loss surgery.

Many times, medical tourism is a tourism diversification project for other countries, often being led by Ministries of Tourism or Trade, and not by the health sector. Additionally, these other countries may not have the regulations or standards that we have.

Patients traveling for surgery to Mexico, for instance, are largely left on their own to research risks and are often given questionable information on the relative risks of receiving bariatric surgery in Canada compared with a facility in Mexico, according to the CJS.  Testimonials from past medical tourists and word-of-mouth information also play a key role in medical tourists’ information gathering process. Family physicians are unlikely to be consulted during this process.

Dr. Ali Zentner, a specialist in internal medicine and obesity says “We’re seeing a lot of patients who went elsewhere and had complications, and now we’re definitely faced with the added burden, the added concern associated with that.”

Canadians are motivated to travel abroad for bariatric surgery owing to wait times for care and restrictions on access at home for various reasons. But how should we assign respon­sibility for the expenses created by bariatric tourists who experience postoperative complications that must be addressed upon their return to Canada?

The American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS) strongly recommends that bariatric surgery be performed in Centers of Excellence by surgeons who exclusively perform bariatric surgery. One of the major considerations when choosing a bariatric surgical practice is that it needs to include a comprehensive program where the surgeon and other team members work closely with the patient over the course of at least a year of follow-ups, providing supervision, continuing education and support.

SmartShape Weight Loss Centre is a Bariatric Center of Excellence with a 5-year comprehensive Aftercare Program. We can provide numerous options for financial support of your bariatric surgical procedure. Call us today to find our more. 1-(888)-278-7952 or visit www.smartshape.ca .

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