Should Australia look to become more friendly to medical tourism?

By Uwear

Medical tourism has become very popular for Australians in recent years, as a growing number of Aussies are deciding to travel overseas to countries including Thailand, India, South Korea and Malaysia for medical procedures such as plastic surgery or complex dental work.

In most cases, the motive for this is to receive treatments at a much lower cost. Some say this trend came about from foreign doctors’ recommendations, although it certainly still carries risk with it.

Studies show about 15,000 Australians travel to different countries each year to undergo cosmetic procedures, which are often half the price in Australia, and a large number of people are now going in groups. Also, most customers who go overseas to do it are generally happy with their results.

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Earlier this year, a leaked document from Trade in Services Agreement (TiSA) revealed negotiations of promoting “offshoring” of health services. However, health unions and trade experts say these negotiations, which are being led by Australia, the United States and the European Union, may lead to rapid growth of medical tourism. This in turn could affect those invested in Australian public hospitals and local healthcare.

Some argue that there is a lot of untapped potential for the globalisation of healthcare services, as it could create and endless number of business opportunities for what is a $7.7 trillion per year industry. Medical equipment was also mentioned among Australia’s top 10 exports in a recent study.

While there are large numbers of Aussies traveling overseas for treatment, the number of foreigners coming to Australia for procedures is much lower. According to a report in 2011, people who came to Australia for medical reasons in 2010 made up only 0.23 per cent of total visitors that year. The study also showed that a lack of supply is among the biggest factors for holding back that growth.

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Low numbers of both hospital bed capacity and a limited number of skilled workers combined with a complex visa application process and low government support have led to the industry failing to compete with its international competitors.

Although experts say the Australian healthcare system should focus mainly on meeting its own domestic needs before expanding the medical tourism industry, our close proximity to Asia, perhaps the largest market for medical tourism, gives Australia a lot of potential to capitalize on it. 


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