Medical tourism is bad business for Canadian hospitals

For the other side of this debate, see Marnie Escaff & Nizar Mahomed’s Caring for international patients improves care for Canadians

Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto has recently been in the news for its new method of revenue generation: offering care to wealthy foreign patients – aka “medical tourists” – who are able to pay out-of-pocket for healthcare. This practice veers significantly away from the underlying premise of Medicare in Canada: patients should be seen based on need, not on ability to pay. It is my opinion that medical tourism should not occur in Canada.

The practice introduced by Sunnybrook isn’t new. Toronto’s University Health Network has raised millions of dollars by seeing international patients on a referral basis. However, unlike the UHN, Sunnybrook is actively marketing in other countries to create awareness that it is “open for business.” UHN claims that it does not market its services, however, UHN President and incoming Deputy Minister of Health Robert Bell, declined to say what patients are charged for services, citing the competitiveness of the marketplace.

There is no doubt that hospitals are struggling for funding, and that it is tempting to see medical tourism as a way to address financing issues. However, care needs to taken so that the cure isn’t worse than the disease.

Following significant media attention, including a letter to Ontario’s Premier Wynne from Canadian Doctors for Medicare and other partners, requesting a ban on two-tier healthcare, Health Minister Deb Mathews has announced an informal review of medical tourism. The areas to be looked at include whether public money is being used for medical tourists, whether Ontarians are waiting longer for care because of medical tourism, and whether revenue generated from fee-paying foreign patients is going back into the public healthcare system.

Medical tourism should not be confused with medical humanitariasm. The long-standing humanitarian programs that welcome patients from other countries or assist in sharing Canadian expertise with developing health systems are activities of which we are rightly proud. Advertising to attract wealthy patients as a means to fund Canadian hospitals is something quite different.

Attracting medical tourists — individuals with the financial means to choose to travel abroad for medical treatment — is a risky practice, both from the points of view of financial sustainability and the delivery of equitable care.

Here are my concerns:

Medical tourism represents a shift to for-profit, private healthcare. Healthcare in Canada is rooted in the notion of accessing services based on need, not ability to pay. Creating a second tier contravenes the principles of Medicare, and also establishes a precedent for the wealthy to access care ahead of others. It would be reasonable for a wealthy Canadian to ask why they aren’t able to pay for care in a Canadian hospital.

In a recent debate on CBC’s the Current, Dr Robert Ouellet, former Canadian Medical Association President and current Senior Fellow with the Fraser Institute, argued in favour of medical tourism. He then made the jump to needing to change the Canada Health Act to allow this type of for-profit activity, exemplifying the slippery slope medical tourism can lead to.

“Unused capacity” should be used to treat Canadians. Many Canadians are on waiting lists for procedures and services. If hospitals have empty facilities, and physicians, nurses and other staff needing work, the provincial and federal governments should be working together to better use those resources to reduce waiting times for Canadians. Is it fair to be marketing interventions to medical tourists if we can’t meet our own needs?

Resources may be lost from the public system. It takes many healthcare workers and support staff, from doctors and nurses, to administrators and cleaners, to keep a hospital functioning. If those workers are focused on medical tourists, they are not focusing on Canadians in the public system.

Lack of continuity of care and patient safety. If a Canadian pays for care in another country then returns to Canada for follow-up, healthcare providers may have difficulty coordinating proper care. By treating medical tourists in Canada then having them return to another country, Canadian hospitals may create the same challenges for international healthcare workers. There are also risks inherent to long-distance travel that may be increased by flying before/after a medical procedure.

In a Globe and Mail Op-Ed, Colleen Flood from the Evidence Network asks, “If medical tourism is the solution, we’d best ask first, what’s the problem?” If the issue is insufficient money for hospitals, then that should be addressed at the provincial and federal levels.

If hospitals are seeking ways to obtain stable, sustainable long-term funding, relying on the uncertainties of medical tourism, while undermining Medicare, does not seem to be a reasonable solution. It is telling that this controversy is arising just after the federal government decided to underfund Ontario through its new formula for allocating healthcare dollars.

This situation could also be an impetus for broader conversations around hospitals priorities. Money, although necessary for healthcare, is not always sufficient to address challenges. It is not clear whether there is a specific gap in service provision that UHN or Sunnybrook are seeking to supplement with money from medical tourists. There may be other innovative approaches that could be taken, in addition to seeking funding.

The core problem with medical tourism is that it gives preference to patients based on their ability to pay, rather than on need. If hospitals require additional funding to be able to conduct their business, we should seek ways of supporting healthcare locally, provincially and federally, in ways that do not create inequities in the Canadian healthcare system.

For the other side of this debate, see Marnie Escaff & Nizar Mahomed’s Caring for international patients improves care for Canadians

The comments section is closed.

  • Dheeraj Gupta says:

    We have seen a lot of patients coming from all over the world for different medical treatments in Mumbai.
    The most common is the treatment for hair loss in Mumbai by Canadians.
    According to cosmetic treatment especially hair transplant is 6 to 8 times costlier then Mumbai.
    Such huge differences in cost also have made medical tourism working around the globe.

  • Shane Rose says:

    I agree with Sol Stein, There are a lot of medical travelers who think the same as you. If you can have that certain procedure done abroad immediately and more cheaper then I would prefer to travel. I’ve read this article about PlacidCanada who helps Canadians to have their options about traveling abroad for their healthcare needs. I think this will be a great help for Canadians who are seeking and still looking for affordable treatment abroad and the best destination.

  • Shawn Whatley says:

    Thanks for this, Monica.

    I think we agree that our first concern remains outstanding patient care given as promptly as we would give it to our family members. In Canada, privileged patients do not wait in line for care. Privilege depends on being a celebrity, an MP or MPP, having close family in healthcare, have care paid by WSIB, or visiting from out of country, to name a few.

    We walk all over the 5 principles of Medicare right now. We should either follow the principles, or change them.

    Whatever we decide, let’s put patients first.

    Thanks again!



  • Sol Stein says:

    I’ve never understood the blind adherence to our lowest-common-denominator health care system.

    The weight of its own ideals has caused it to become ineffective.

    If I were a wealthy man who needed a new hip, and my options were to live in pain for a few years before it could be done in Canada for free, or fly to the US and pay for it to be done two weeks from now, which option would I choose?

    Time is the most valuable asset people have, and the Canadian health care system does not account for that.

    We are asking people to sacrifice their time, when they have the means to avoid doing such, so that we may all suffer together. That is ludicrous!

    The government needs to get the hell out of health care. Period.

  • blumanthai says:

    hahaha, this is so funny, but it just might point out some systemic problems in Canadian health care. For example, a non -appointment comprehensive medical by internationally certified doctors is available in South east Asia for about $150.00 Cdn. My best friend from high school is a thoreasic surgeon in the States; when my mother was refused surgery in Canada because her survival rate was ONLY 95%, my friend, who works in the States said he operates regularly on people with a 60% survival rate.


Monika Dutt


Monika is the Medical Officer of Health for Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.

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