Australian Interest in Medical Tourism Increases, As Does Disease Risk
By Marius | Published May 31, 2011
The number of Australian citizens choosing to venture abroad for medical care is increasing steadily. Some health experts warn however that patients receiving more complex surgeries overseas are putting both themselves and the Australian health system at risk of spreading hazardous foreign viruses upon their return.
The relatively high cost of healthcare and insurance in Australia, coupled with the waiting lists present in the country’s public health system, have driven many people to look abroad for solutions to their individual health problems. This behavior is by no means unique to Australia, merely part of the growing worldwide phenomenon of citizens electing to cross borders and shop for more affordable healthcare procedures, a practice now known as medical tourism. The substantial development of the global economy coupled with the falling costs of travel and communication has enabled world class healthcare practices to establish themselves all around the world. International clients seeking alternative healthcare solutions to what is available in their home countries at competitive prices now are presented with many opportunities.
Anita Medhekar, economist lecturer at Central Queensland University, explained in an interview that Australians with disposable income were making modern consumer decisions based on a now unrestrained global medical marketplace. “Medical tourism is international economics in action. It is an economic activity that involves trade in services from two distinct sectors of the economy: medicine and tourism. While worth a lot of money to destination countries, it also means savings for people in Australia seeking affordable medical procedures without having to wait.”
Top private hospital chains in Thailand and India have been at the forefront in attracting international clients. Both countries’ governments are actively involved in promoting medical tourism and whole medical cities are now being developed, complete with research centers and luxurious hotels to lure foreign patients. However, the main draw of these private facilities has been the ability to offer surgery and medical treatment at between a third and a tenth of the costs charged in most Western countries.
Mrs. Medhekar lauded the progress these countries have made in providing exceptional healthcare services. “Internationally approved hospitals in India and Thailand match some of the best medical facilities in the world, and their staff is second to none. Many of the doctors employed at these facilities are trained in western countries and are all English speaking. In some cases, what we are seeing is high rise, state-of-the-art hospitals combining with five-star accommodation. The first few floors are for diagnosis, surgery and medical suites, and the remainder is similar to any top-end resort.”
Medical tourism agencies have confirmed that the continued development of these high quality foreign health centers has increased the reputation and popularity of the medical tourism industry globally. More people are now choosing to have serious surgery overseas, which is a marked shift from the cheap aesthetic procedures the industry had traditionally performed in the past.
Cassandra Italia, managing director at Global Health Travel, revealed that her agency currently flies about 40 Australian patients a month to India, Thailand and South Korea, among others, for advanced treatments such as spinal, orthopedic and bariatric surgery.
“In the last year and half, we’ve seen about a 70 per cent increase in people coming to us just because they don’t want to sit on waiting lists,” she said, adding “some people are accessing their superannuation or re-mortgaging their houses to get their surgery done.”
Thailand’s private hospitals in particular have proven popular with Australian medical tourists, especially for gender-selection IVF procedures that are banned in Australia for non-medical reasons. Australians who are not prepared to wait six to 12 months in their public hospital system have also flocked to the country en mass for knee and hip replacement procedures. The Thai government is delighted by this, as it views Australia as a key market to help achieve its ambitious goals of raising medical tourism revenues in the country to US$3.3 billion by 2015.
The rise in medical tourism, however, has alarmed Australian health experts and prompted vigorous debate between medical professionals over the risks this practice brings to Australia’s isolated health ecosystem. Professor Lindsay Grayson, director of infectious diseases at Melbourne’s Austin Hospital, worried that many Australians had already returned from overseas surgery “extremely ill because they received poor care and picked up foreign superbugs – organisms resistant to antibiotics.”
Professor Grayson was speaking of a new complex virus, which originated in India, known as NDM-1. The bug was recently found in several Australian patients who had traveled overseas and is, according to Grayson, “genuinely scary” due to its unprecedented abilities to adapt and become resistant to antibiotics.
“This is an incredible threat to the way we practice medicine at the moment, because the NDM-1 gene is resistant to everything except for two drugs, one of which is extremely old and toxic for the kidneys and another which is a very new drug but not very effective,” he said, adding “So this is making us very alert to any return traveler, let alone a medical tourist.”
Peter Collignon, director of the infectious diseases and microbiology unit at Australian National University, asserted that the threat from NDM-1 was very serious and that Australian hospitals should be made ready to isolate returning medical tourists until they can determine that they are not carrying superbugs and do not pose a contamination risk to hospitals or the general public.
“These people are risking bringing superbugs into our hospitals and that increases the risks for everyone else,” he said.
Peter Davison, manager of international services at Phuket International Hospital, hit back at superbug fears, saying that the isolation proposal did not relate directly to medical tourism and it wasn’t fair to tar the industry. “The quarantine factor could be applied to ‘every tourist from any nationality who has been to an Indian hospital because of an accident, as well as every Indian national who has also had recent surgery…. That is a lot of people to identify and isolate, and the majority are not medical tourists at all.”
However Australia decide to proceed from here to tackle this superbug risk, they will ultimately need their healthcare system to become more cost-effective and efficient to encourage jet-setting patients to come back home for treatment.