Medical tourism conference attracts curious few in Ottawa

A convention in Ottawa offered a view on what kind of procedures and destinations are available to Canadians seeking medical treatment abroad — and raised questions about private health care.

Saving time and money for medical treatment abroad comes with risks

The Destination Health medical tourism conference took place at the Shaw Conference Centre and included vendors from Thailand, Germany, the Cayman Islands and Mexico. (CBC)

A sparsely attended convention in Ottawa offered people a view on what kind of procedures and destinations are available to Canadians seeking medical treatment abroad.

The offerings included fertility treatments in South Korea, weight loss surgery in the Dominican Republic and spine specialists from Germany.

Murray Durham came from London, Ont., to attend Destination Health. He said he's already received a procedure abroad at a fraction of the cost in Canada.

"Just last year, I went to Kyiv, Ukraine, and had some dental work performed and I was very impressed with the service and the quality of the dentist," Durham said.

He was so impressed, he wants to get in on the industry as a medical tourism facilitator — a travel agent specializing in medical treatments abroad. 

Wait times, money and risk

Destination Health founder Pablo Castillo said the conference was about offering health care choices.

"I would say over 50 per cent of the people who travel [do it] because they don't want to wait. The other 50 per cent are looking for an elective procedure that may be available here, but they're looking for a more cost-effective solution somewhere else," he said.

Pablo Castillo is the founder of the Destination Health medical tourism conference. The second edition of the conference was held in Ottawa from September 9-11. (CBC)

However, saving time and money has some risks. A recent study says weight-loss surgeries performed in Mexico cost the Alberta health care system more than $500,000 a year to fix botched procedures. Researchers said that estimate only includes direct surgical responses to prevent serious complications from so-called "stomach stapling" and similar operations, not the long-term impact on the health care system.

Castillo said concerns about complications shouldn't be limited to those who travel for procedures and that it's important for people to research any facility they plan to use.

"Medical malpractice and complications [are] not something uncommon internationally and in Canada, as well," he said. 

A report from the Fraser Institute, released last year, says the number of medical tourists leaving Canada increased by nearly a quarter in 2014. An estimated 52,000 people left the country — half of them from Ontario — for non-emergency procedures.

Canada: a medical tourism destination?

With a challenge to Canada's single-payer healthcare system currently before the British Columbia Supreme Court, the landscape for medical tourism across the country could be changing too. 

Dr. Brian Day of the Cambie Surgery Centre of Vancouver is challenging B.C.'s ban on privately purchasing medically-necessary services that are already covered by the public system.

Castillo is watching for the result of that case to see if it could open the door for more private health care.

"That's what would open the whole door to Canada becoming a medical tourism destination," he said. "Because, of course, the facility owners would see the opportunity of bringing international patients."

Durham said medical tourism may help Canadians exhausted by navigating the overburdened medical system. But it will be up to political leaders to catch up with demand.

"We may have to have some kind of crisis with our health care system, with the financing of it, to finally wake up these people and get them looking in the right direction."