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Medical tourism boom 'potential threat' to local healthcare

12 November, 2014

Medical tourism may represent a serious threat to Australia's healthcare system – but a lack of evidence remains an impediment to rational assessment of its impact, according to the authors of a piece recently published in the Medical Journal of Australia.

More questions than answers exist about medical tourism, according to Associate Professor David Greenfield and Dr Marjorie Pawsey from the Australian Institute of Health Innovation.

They wrote: "At face value, medical tourism presents as a positive avenue for sufficiently wealthy consumers to obtain health care without being limited by what is available to them locally.

"However, medical tourism cannot be judged without considering ethics, safety, costs to the community and continuity of care.

"Ethically, questions arise about the moral position of developing countries targeting medical care "to wealthy consumers at the expense of treating local residents."

Safety risks from overseas treatment

In terms of safety, possible lack of care planning, a lack of evidence-based decision-making frameworks, greater infection risks faced in countries with different microbial pathogens and higher infection rates, all pose serious questions.

"Continuity of care is disrupted when consumers travel overseas for medical treatment.

"We know neither what local health records are available to overseas health professionals before they treat a patient, nor what overseas health records are available to Australian professionals for follow-up care.

"We do not know whether or how safety, quality and continuity of care are achieved when consumers seek treatment overseas."

Further, when infected medical tourists return to Australia for further treatment, the responsibility, costs and risks of care are transferred to the Australian healthcare system.

Associate Professor Greenfield and Dr Pawsey said the lack of research into the processes and consequences of medical tourism was the major problem.

"We do not know if medical tourism will be a future boon or bane for Australia's consumers and healthcare system.

"Care and caution are needed, because the potential negative consequences for individuals and the community remain profound."

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