Useful resource for medical travel companions

 

I will never forget the first Canadian medical tourist I interviewed. I was gripped when this person told me about travelling abroad for invasive surgery, accompanied by their spouse. While in India, this spouse required emergency surgery to address a chronic condition that had worsened.

This situation sounded so distressing and the researcher in me wondered: Could the mental and physical stress of caregiving in an unfamiliar, international context have negatively impacted the spouse’s health to the point that surgery was required?

For most of the last decade I have been involved in extensively studying medical tourism. I have spoken with patients, policy-makers, doctors, nurses, tourism officials, travel operators and many others in well over a dozen countries. Much of this research has examined ethical and equity questions related to medical tourism (e.g. trying to understand if and how local patients, health-care providers and health systems can benefit from medical tourism in the Caribbean).

One thing I have learned is that many medical tourists do not travel on their own. Many travel with a friend or family member, who serve as a source of familiarity, support and comfort. They help with very practical matters, such as confirming travel plans and keeping others informed about the medical tourists’ health status. In fact, these roles and responsibilities can be quite extensive.

‘Shadow workers’ in a multi-billion dollar industry

It is often reported that medical tourism is a multi-billion dollar global industry. (Though let’s be careful not to rely too much on the numbers that are reported because, most of the quantitative figures that exist are wrong.)

Clinics, hospitals and entire countries are actively trying to attract medical tourists through costly advertisement campaigns and other promotional efforts. But what about the friends and family who accompany them?

Accompanying a friend or relative for health care overseas — which often means taking care of their every need — can be physically, psychologically and emotionally exhausting.

I rarely see mention about friends and family in the brochures, websites, e-mails and trade shows that advertise medical tourism services.

There is no formal guidance on what they can expect while they are abroad. No formal resources to prepare them to do things like change wound dressings in hotel rooms or navigate airports with someone recovering from surgery.

These friends and family are, in many ways, “shadow workers” in a multi-billion dollar global industry.  The unpaid care work they provide to medical tourists is invaluable and yet, in my opinion, the industry does little to protect them.

Nine factors to consider

I think there are many things that can be done to transition these friends and family members from unpaid “shadow workers” to prepared members of medical tourists’ support networks.

My collaborative research shows that one tangible action is to develop resources to help these individuals make informed decisions, become prepared travelers and caregivers and stay safe and healthy.  Based on interviewing Canadians who had accompanied a family member or friend abroad for medical tourism, we’ve put together a one-page information sheet that offers nine specific factors for friends and family to carefully consider before accompanying a medical tourist abroad.

Called "Are you thinking about accompanying a medical tourist abroad as a caregiver?", these nine factors cover three main themes:

  • My Health – what might impact the health of the care giver themselves, ranging from physically lifting the patient, to immunisations required in the country they’re visiting
  • Patient Health – alerting the care giver that they may be asked by the clinic to report on symptom changes, or that they might need to make unexpected decisions on behalf of the patient
  • My Journey – urging companions to do their own research on the destination and the medical procedure, including health and safety protocols, transport arrangements and accommodation standards.

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