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Home > Blog > 2010 > Is medical tourism safe?


Is medical tourism safe?

Is medical tourism safe

A significant proportion of medical tourism and medical travel is driven by people seeking established and proven treatments in countries where the cost of the treatment or operation is much lower than in their home country. Within this segment of the market, the focus of patient safety is upon the hospital, clinic or doctor who is carrying out the treatment. Can the patient be confident that the healthcare provider has the necessary expertise and experience to carry out the procedure? The question... “Does this treatment actually work?” does not arise. 

For proven treatments, the hospitals, clinics and doctors (and medical tourism facilitators) can reassure the patient by providing proof of qualifications, accreditations; experience and so on.... and in some cases may be prepared to provide data on clinical outcomes. Unfortunately, this is all too often lacking. Patients are often asked to take on trust the claims of the healthcare provider, particularly in those countries that do not have national standards and systems for the collection of comparative clinical outcome data or independent review and analysis.  Even an international accreditation such as JCI is not a guarantee of quality, nor an assessment of how good a hospital actually is at delivering safe and successful treatments.

So, in established areas of medical travel such as cosmetic surgery, dental treatment and elective surgery there is still much work to be done to convince potential medical tourists that treatment abroad is a safe option (or at least as safe as within their home country.


Is it safe to travel for an “unproven and experimental” treatment?

A much bigger question on safety arises when we look at a different segment of the market. Patients who travel for treatment because a treatment option is available overseas but is not yet approved in their own country. 

A controversial new treatment for multiple sclerosis is a case in point. Liberation therapy is a procedure in which veins are opened up in the neck with the aim of improving blood flow from the brain. Some doctors believe that liberation therapy for multiples sclerosis reduces the development of further MS attacks and in some cases can improve mobility but the treatment is yet to be supported by extensive clinical research, and has not been approved for use by any major national healthcare system. However, there have been successes. Ian Wilson, a British MS patient, relates how liberation therapy in Poland has changed his life.  

And there have also been failures.... 

Last month, the death of a Canadian patient who travelled to Costa Rica for liberation therapy hit the headlines - Death of MS patient fuels debate over new treatment  

Doctors in Canada say that Mr. Mostic’s death is a cautionary tale for patients assessing an unproven and experimental treatment. While the procedure has yet to undergo clinical trials in Canada, multiple sclerosis patients have shelled out thousands of dollars for the procedure in countries such as India and Poland.” 

Much of the work on liberation therapy (for CCSVI - Chronic Cerebo-Spinal Venus Insufficiency) has been conducted by Professor Paulo Zamboni in Italy. (View Professor Zamboni’s research paper on “Chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency in patients with multiple sclerosis” in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry). In a workshop on CCSVI in April this year, Professor Zamboni advocated this strategy  

"… we are still at the stage where we need to understand if this type of treatment makes sense, with who and when, etc. … We can’t be like cowboys and try new things on other people’s skins before it was experimented safely, so I insisted that, if the treatment has to be done, they should be done by a group that have a program, with their proper neurologist and with a conservative regimen”


A tempting market

There are 2.5 million MS patients worldwide, a proportion of whom would travel and spend significant amounts of money to relieve their symptoms or to slow down the progress of the disease.  The cost of the treatment is around $10,000 (7,500 euros). Let’s imagine that just 500 of the 2.5 million sufferers decide it’s worth spending $10,000 on the chance of a cure. That’s a $5 million market. Suppose, 5,000 (0.2% of sufferers) take the plunge... that’s a $50 million market. 

Not surprisingly, various CCSVI providers have appeared around the world to capitalise on the potential demand. Here are a few examples:

And medical tourism facilitators haven’t been slow to pursue the revenue opportunity either:

In the world of stem cell treatment, we see a similar picture. But is it safe? Is it ethical? Is it driven purely by the potential cash returns?

And above all, is it in the best interests of the patient?

Date published: 10 Dec 2010


Comments provided below do not represent the views of IMTJ. Comments will be published 'as is' and will not be edited by IMTJ staff. IMTJ is hosting these comments, and is not undertaking an editorial role. However, it is editorial policy to publish comments that have been submitted anonymously. 

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About me

Keith Pollard

Keith Pollard

I am CEO of Intuition Communication Ltd, a web publishing business in the healthcare sector. Our sites include International Medical Travel Journal, Treatment Abroad, the medical tourism portal, DoctorInternet, the Arabic medical tourism portal and Private Healthcare UK, the UK's leading site for private healthcare services. I am a regular speaker and commentator on medical tourism and the independent healthcare sector.

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There are many facts of medical tourism and it has become a ray of hope for Governments and Institutions, for patients and insurance providers. While on the other hand it has become a hope for healthcare organizations who are treating these tourists to make money out of it and improve their standards of care. Like if we follow American phenomenon for medical tourism, their hope is that it will bail out their healthcare system for quality treatment at no delay in getting procedures done and most of all saving huge amount of exchequer, which unfortunately can not be taken in a form of easy <a href="http://cashadvancesus.com/"><b>cash advance</b></a>. Currently, total hip replacement, an orthopedic procedure costs about 50,000.00 $, while same procedure is done at 10 to 15 thousand $.

Jennyfer Smith (14/06/2011 08:44:46)

The problem which arises when patients travel for new and not yet approved treatments is often not connected to the proper delivery of the treatment itself but to the right choice for the particular patient and his particular condition with regard to the chosen treatment option. Unfortunately this is where medical travel as we see it now does worst. Information is rare and selective, patients are often desperate (because these treatment options often relate to serious chronic diseases) and there is no proper connection between pre and post treatment providers and the hospital in question. Let's be honest, who is going to turn away a patient who turnes out to be not a good candidate for the treatment option in question when he/she arrived at the facility? To make medical travel safe, the industry needs to establish quality controlls which also take these problems of interconnection into account (and thus often go against the economic interests of individual service providers both in the country of origine and the travel detination). This needs a level of self governance that can only be achieved by a strong association which will act in favor of the common interest and sustainability of the whole industry, which can only based on the delivery of highest 'systemic' quality.

Martina Todchuk (10/03/2011 07:58:12)

It is safe in Turkey. Because Assocoation of Turkish Dentists' have very straight rules for dental clinics. Sterilisation is very important and performing carefully. Istanbul university's microbiology lab can test the sterilisation of dental clinic's. www.dentist-in-turkey.com

Esma Misirlioglu (01/03/2011 05:00:26)

It it true is difficult to convince patients they can have the same procedure abroad, specially now days that the cost of surgeries is actually lowing in the same US states as it is in Florida and TexaS.

MTICR CR (20/01/2011 20:44:10)