For anyone who watched the U.S. Presidential Debate on October 9, you might have heard Donald Trump’s comment about Canada’s health care system as being “so slow its catastrophic in certain ways”. He also added that “and if you ever notice the Canadians, when they need a big operation, when something happens they come into the United States in many cases.”
For many Canadians, this comment wasn’t well received as our universal health care system is something many of us hold as a source of pride and as a differentiating entitlement. While some might be confused or unwelcoming of our socialized health insurance plans that provide coverage to all Canadian citizens, it is an arrangement that, especially when needed, is highly valued.
Negative associations regarding Canada’s health care system primarily focus on the length of wait times for specialist appointments and medical procedures. While this is a generalization, there are some elements of truth to wait times that find Canadians looking for alternate arrangements to their health care needs. According to Bacchus Barua, a senior economist with the Fraser Institute, patients can wait up to 18 weeks or more before seeing a specialist to confirm next steps.
The challenge with looking to trends related to medical tourism is the limitation of definite data. In recent years, the Fraser Institute reported on medical tourism by surveying physicians about their patients. The question asked in the survey is, “Approximately what percentage of your patients received non-emergency medical treatment in the past 12 months outside of Canada?” Of note, the report doesn’t include patients who didn’t consult with their attending physician before travelling abroad for medical treatment. This data might therefore not be 100% accurate, but it does provide information to support the trend in medical tourism for Canadians.
In 2015, the Fraser Institute survey revealed that about 1 percent of Canadian patients left the country for elective medical care. This percentage equates to 45,619, which is slightly less than was reported in the same survey the previous year at 52,513 in 2014.
Regardless of the exact numbers, year over year, there is increasing provincial and local provider interest in supporting medical tourism. In addition, with companies like Health City Canada (the Canadian office of Health City in the Grand Cayman Islands) and Destination Health, which showcases featured medical facilities around the world where Canadians can pay to get surgery performed quickly, there appears to be an increasing sophistication of foreign medical tourism operations.
While the wait list for key services continues, the top medical tourism destinations for Canadians includes:
Some countries have invested significantly in their medical infrastructure and have established regulations and standards to facilitate safe and successful treatments. Other countries have different regulations and Canadians who seek medical treatment abroad may risk potential life threatening post-operative complications. When they return home and seek medical attention to remedy their complication, it adds cost to the Canadian health care system requiring the attention of medical staff who might have deployed their skills to reducing the wait time by meeting with other patients in need.
The Government of Canada website addresses medical tourism and asks Canadians to consult Well on your way: a Canadian’s guide to healthy travel abroad. The webpage
asks Canadians to be aware of the implications of receiving medical care in other countries and sites the example that “some countries’ medical services may not test blood for blood-borne infections like HIV or hepatitis B.”
Some may argue that medical tourism saves the Canadian health care system, but others may also consider that the cost of addressing medical complications drains funds out of our medical system when these patients return home.
With 1 percent of the Canadian population pursuing destination healthcare or medical tourism, it is a topic that will continue to be of interest and worth keeping an eye on in terms of the impact to our public health care system and the downstream effects that play out in the group benefits arena. We will continue to monitor this emerging global trend and invite you to contact us if you have any questions. We’re here to help so you can focus on what you do best.
Dave Dickinson, B.Comm, CFP, CLU, CHFC
Experienced Benefits Specialist ready to optimize your group benefits and pension plans.