Medical tourism costs Alberta health system $560K per year, study finds

As flashy weight-loss ads for out-of-country medical surgeries continue to draw Albertans to Mexico and other places, a new study says fixing some of the bungled procedures costs Alberta's health system more than half a million dollars each year.

Estimate is conservative and doesn't account for long-term care or hospital stays, researcher says

Dr. Shahzeer Karmali said Alberta's health system is spending more than $560,000 annually to correct botched bariatric surgeries performed abroad. (Getty Images)

As flashy weight-loss ads for medical surgeries continue to draw Albertans to Mexico and abroad, a new study says the costs of fixing some of the bungled procedures costs Alberta's health system more than half a million dollars each year.

The study, published in the Canadian Journal of Surgery, surveyed 25 surgeons who treated 59 medical tourists between 2012 and 2013 after they had undergone bariatric surgery — a treatment for morbid obesity that involves, among other things, shrinking the stomach or intestines to induce weight-loss. 

It found these patients incurred more than $560,000 in surgical costs after returning to Canada.

In some cases, doctors had to address life-threatening complications, such as stomach leaks and ruptures that can cause fatal sepsis.

Dr. Shahzeer Karmali, one of the lead researchers, said some of these patients were trying to avoid the long diagnosis times, lengthy wait lists and generally restrictive access to these services in Canada.

He also said the findings do not account for the additional strain placed on Alberta's limited health resources. 

"There are much higher costs that we didn't actually calculate," Karmali said. Those include hospital stays, seeing other specialists and long-term care costs, he said.

Some individuals have had to be put on life-long tube-feeds, and "the costs of that are in the millions," he said.

Karmali said some companies actually recommend this type of medical tourism to Canadians, adding that these organizations also need to assume liability for the problems that arise post-surgery.

"Some patients do not understand exactly what they're into when they get back," he said.

"Obesity is a complex disorder," he said. "Just travelling out of the country won't solve the problem with obesity."


With files from The Homestretch and Edmonton AM

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