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Canadians warming up to idea of 'medical tourism'

More than 60 per cent of Canadians would be willing to leave the country for medical procedures if they were covered by healthcare, according to a new report by an international consulting firm.

Medical tourism is a growing industry, said Mark Fam, a senior manager with Deloitte's National Health Services. The industry is divided into two sectors: inbound, the number of patients travelling into a country to receive treatment; and outbound, those travelling outside the country.

In terms of outbound, "over two per cent of Canadians right now are already travelling outside the country to receive services," Fam told CTV News Channel.

According to the report, this presents insurance companies an opportunity to provide additional coverage that includes medical tourism; and also offers Canadian hospitals a chance to free up bed space.

Procedures sought outside Canada include cosmetic operations, fertility treatments and cardiac care.

The issue made headlines last year when former Newfoundland and Labrador premier Danny Williams travelled to a Florida hospital for heart surgery -- proof, according to critics of public health care, that a private system is better.

"Provincial governments have the opportunity to encourage citizens to seek out procedures abroad to alleviate their health systems' wait times, improve access to care and also position Canada as a medical tourism destination…" the report says. "But before doing this, governments should determine if the cost of medical tourism services be less than the delivery of services locally."

In addition to speedier care, the benefits of travelling abroad to receive treatment can include the prospect of receiving cutting-edge treatment and a chance to relax.

Many patients treat it as a vacation, said Farm. Still, patients need to be diligent and ask questions about the facility they are visiting, post-op recover time and treatment options, he said.

In addition to individual benefits, there are also broad economic advantages.

According to a 2009 Deloitte report, the outbound medical tourism industry could reach up to 1.6 million patients by 2012. Many patients travel to countries such as India, Thailand and Costa Rica where governments are aggressively vying for a bigger share of the estimated $40 billion industry.

Last year, India's government backed a three-day conference at the Toronto's Metro Convention Centre. Sponsors included Indian private health care companies and firms that specialize in medical tourism, hoping to attract more Canadian medical tourism dollars.

Currently, medical tourism is unregulated in Canada.

If Canadian hospitals were allowed to sell services for "inbound" medical tourism, Farm said it could be a win-win situation. "It's an opportunity to bring in foreign travelers and receive additional funds in the system which actually can be used to provide more services to Canadians here."

Opponents of medical tourism are concerned the industry promotes a two-tiered system that favours the wealthy.

Farm said however, that it's not just the rich who are seeking outside services. "Regardless of income level, we see a range of 15 to 25 per cent of Canadians willing to travel."

Deloitte will soon publish its latest report: "Evolving medical tourism in Canada -- Exploring a new frontier."

Source ctv.ca