Prof. Marion Joppe

What if going to the hospital was like going on vacation? Imagine recovering from surgery in a resort-like setting instead of a crowded hospital room. Health tourism, which involves travelling abroad to receive medical treatment for health problems or wellness services that help prevent them, is a booming global industry. Medical tourism is especially popular among North Americans and Europeans looking for shorter wait times and less-costly medical treatment abroad, but is it safe?

“People from the developed world are travelling to less-developed countries because of a significant price difference,” says Prof. Marion Joppe, School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, who holds a University Research Chair in Tourism. “It’s really taking off.”

Some countries are becoming renowned for their medical specialties. Hungary, for example, has Western-trained dentists who offer the same dental procedures as their North American counterparts at a fraction of the cost. “Even with the expense of travelling and having to stay there, it’s a lot cheaper than getting it done in your own country,” says Joppe.

But any medical procedure carries risks, whether it’s performed at home or abroad. In some cases, going to another country for medical treatment can cause more harm than good.

In the wake of new research that suggests a build-up of iron in the brain plays a role in multiple sclerosis, a growing number of MS patients are travelling abroad to receive a controversial new treatment that involves opening blocked veins in the neck using angioplasty. The treatment hasn’t been approved in Canada. Some patients have died following the treatment, while others have experienced complications that doctors in their home countries refuse to treat because of liability concerns.

“Since you don’t stay in those countries for very long, anything can happen,” says Joppe. “It can happen months later, or even years later, and then who deals with it?”

Medical tourism also raises a number of ethical questions about who gets treatment and who doesn’t. Foreigners often have access to health care in poor countries that the local population can’t afford.

“Because doctors and hospitals can charge these foreigners more, that’s who they prefer to treat,” says Joppe, adding that poor countries are making a profit by treating wealthy Westerners instead of their own citizens. “Health is a public good, or should be a public good,” she says. “Public goods go into making hospitals and training personnel. It shouldn’t be exclusively for-profit motivations.”

Although travel insurance doesn’t cover medical expenses incurred abroad as a result of elective surgery, some procedures are covered by OHIP if there’s a lengthy waiting list in Ontario. For some patients, money is no object when it comes to relieving their pain and discomfort as soon as possible.

“They say, ‘I’ve got the money, I just want to get it done. I’m in pain. It’s going to be 14 months before I’ll get my operation here in Canada. I’ll just go overseas. I’ll turn it into a holiday,’” says Joppe. “They’re jumping the queue, but they’re not doing it at the expense of other Canadians.”

Unlike medical tourism, wellness tourism is aimed at people who are already in good health and want to stay that way by relieving stress, getting in shape and improving their diet. Spas cater to wellness seekers by offering services like facials and massages as well as fitness programs like Pilates and yoga.

As stress levels rise, so do the number of spas. In 2006, Canada had 2,340 spas, of which almost 75 per cent were day spas. Ontario was home to the most spas (44 per cent), followed by British Columbia (18 per cent) and Quebec (17 per cent), according to a study by Joppe that appeared in the Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management.

Alternative health services like aromatherapy and reflexology can be relaxing, but they may provide a false sense of well-being. “Some of the claims that are made are not substantiated,” says Joppe. “There really should be greater oversight, particularly to ensure that they are administered correctly.”