Australian doctors are referring local patients to businesses which promote and sell medical tourism

Australian doctors are referring local patients to businesses which promote and sell medical tourism, a trend which may continue as the costs for the same procedures in Australia continue to grow.

Australian doctors are referring patients to companies which organise for surgery and other medical treatments to be done in countries like Thailand.

Faced with long waiting lists and rising private health insurance costs, patients are being directed to businesses which organise flights, dental work, cosmetic surgery and hotel accommodation for individuals or groups looking for medical care at rates far below those available in Australia.

In the last year, one national medical tourism business said it started receiving about one formal referral from a doctor per week. In the last 18 months, total demand for its services has doubled from 25 clients per month to 50.

The people using the service are typically older, with the average client aged over 40.

“People should be free to do that if they wish, but they need to be aware of what the risks and dangers are.”

Although official data is not available on the growth of medical tourism, US organisation Patients Without Borders estimates global demand for cross-border medical treatments is growing at a rate of 15 per cent to 25 per cent a year, with the worldwide spend between $40 billion and $58 billion a year.

Last year, local insurer NIB Holdings broke ranks with its competitors to announce it would offer a cosmetic and dental package which gave patients the choice of local or overseas surgery, which included a “12-month After-Care Promise” to reassure buyers.

Director of Medi Makeovers, Daniela Pratico, says Australian GPs and surgeons are increasingly referring patients to her company for procedures unaffordable in Australia.

“Probably in the beginning, they weren’t very happy with us, but I’m now getting phone calls from these people,” she says. “Doctors are referring their patients to us as clients.”

Demand for overseas surgery could continue rising as the cost of private health insurance, which increased upwards of 6 per cent on April 1, 2014 and the Abbott government’s slated overhaul of Medicare.

But one Sydney surgeon told The New Daily that people should think carefully before committing to surgery overseas.

Sydney-based plastic surgeon Dr Laith Barnouti says he sees patients with botched overseas surgeries “at least once a week”.

“I have just seen a patient with rupture of her breast implants,” he says. “Also, last week we had a lady who had eyelid and facelift surgery done overseas and she had a revision done here because she could see major asymmetry with the facelift.”

Dr Barnouti says the problem is not a lack of adequately trained specialists in Thailand, but that Australians are making decisions based on price instead of expertise. For anyone considering major surgery in a foreign country, his advice is “just don’t do it.”

No reflection on Australian surgeons

Dr John Quinn, executive director of surgical affairs at the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons, is adamant that any increase in the number of medical tourists is not indicative of a growing problem with Australian healthcare.

“No, I don’t think it points to a problem,” he says. “I think it’s reasonable that the government doesn’t fund cosmetic procedures.”

While the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons does not oppose medical tourism, it does stress the risks.

“We say people should be free to do that if they wish, but they need to be aware of what the risks and dangers are, and they need to go with their eyes wide open.”

Price is the main attraction, with procedures in Thailand often costing less than a third of what is charged here in Australia, Ms Pratico says. Almost any operation, medical or dental, can be arranged.

As an example, a breast augmentation surgery arranged by Medi Makeovers currently costs $3,300 in Thailand, compared to about $15,000 domestically.

The risks

Dr Quinn of the Royal Australian College of Surgeons says there are many risks to consider.

In addition to obvious concerns about hospital standards and the skill and training of staff, he says there is no way to gauge the quality of medical implants, such as silicone breasts and prosthetic joints.

Surgery and flying also have inherent risks, which are only compounded when taken together, Dr Quinn says.

In addition to older women wanting to look more youthful and geriatric patients seeking affordable knee or hip replacements, middle aged men are also using overseas surgery to break cultural taboos, Ms Pratico says.

“Obviously, the majority are women, but things are changing,” she says. Men prefer dental procedures, which carry less of a stigma, but are slowly opting for cosmetic surgeries as well.