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Long wait times may drive Canadians to seek surgery abroad, says Yasmeen Sayeed of Surgical Tourism Canada. ((CBC))

Exhibitors at a Toronto trade fair are hoping to add surgery to the list of reasons Canadians travel, but a medical ethicist questions the lack of oversight in developing countries.

At the convention centre in downtown Toronto on Friday, 20 of India's biggest private hospitals were pitching everything from spinal surgery to hip and knee replacements to facelifts.

"There's three reasons why people go," said Yasmeen Sayeed, of Surgical Tourism Canada. "One is the wait time. We all know that there are long wait times, particularly in the areas of orthopedics and spinal surgery."

The availability of cheaper cosmetic surgery and procedures that are not readily available in Canada, such as hip resurfacing, are two other reasons, Sayeed said.

"Our intention is to showcase the medical talent we have," said Dr. Narottam Puri, president of Fortis Healthcare, one of the largest hospital chains in India. "We are offering the world excellent medical treatment at Third World costs."

Other medical tourism destinations in Southeast Asia and South America are also looking for Canadians seeking an operation and a holiday at the same time.

'Seeking health care without a safety net'

The sales pitches may sound attractive to people who are suffering, but people should also know the risks of medical tourism, said Leigh Turner, a former bioethics professor at McGill University in Montreal who now teaches health policy at the University of Minnesota.

"If they are a victim of malpractice, they will likely find that in India or Thailand there's very little they can do in terms of pursuing legal remedies," said Turner. "I think it's seeking health care without a safety net of any kind."

Medical tourism could end up costing the Canadian health-care system if problems caused by bargain basement treatments require expensive followup care once a patient returns home.

If complications occur, continuity of care may also be more difficult if patients return without any records or charts, Turner said.

Barbara Crooks came to the trade show to check out options in India.

"I have osteoarthritis which causes a lot of problems," said Crooks, of Brampton, Ont., west of Toronto. "I've already had a hip replacement, and I'm looking at a new replacement probably over the next 20 years."

Health Canada said people who go to developing countries for medical treatment do so at their own risk.

Some insurance companies have started offering policies for people who decide to travel for surgery, but critics like Turner said without any official oversight and little data, the best advice for consumers is buyer beware.

The trade show ends Sunday.