MEDICAL tourism has become an international battleground as western countries join the rush to lure travellers seeking self-improvement at a bargain price.
Packages including flight discounts, hotel stays and airport transfers are being offered to Australians by dental and medical clinics in countries like Hungary, Germany, Greece and Canada, in order to compete with those in Thailand and Malaysia.
Surgeries in Spain, Belgium and New Zealand are also getting in on the act, as medical tourism shapes up to be one of the boom sectors of the travel industry in coming years.
Already a $400 billion a year industry, a recent International Travel Insights report by Visa predicted a 25 per cent increase in medical tourists every year for the next decade.
By examining cross-border spending for medical services in 176 countries, the report found the US to be the single largest hub for medical tourism.
“Thailand, Singapore, Germany, Korea, and Spain are quickly catching up, increasingly attracting visitors from around the world,” said the report.
Medical Tourism Abroad Manager Kanika Gupta said their clinics in India, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore were facing significant competition from Europe and North America.
But she said 60 per cent of medical tourists from Australia went to Asia, because of the proximity and savings of up to 75 per cent on the same treatment down under.
HIGH PRICES AT HOME
“It’s not only for the price but the quality of the service they get,” said Ms Gupta.
“We tell our patients (doctors’) qualifications are matched to Australian doctors but their experience is greater and that tends to lead to better results especially for cosmetic surgery.
“They just see so many more patients.”
Consumer law expert Thomas Janson of Shine Lawyers said countries where the Australian dollar was doing well were proving most attractive to medical tourists but there was also growing interest in dental and medical services in English-speaking countries.
“I would look as a first choice at Europe, North America or New Zealand, and perhaps consider going through a medical tourism agent,” Mr Janson said.
“If the agreement is signed in Australia, you would be covered by Australian Consumer Law if things go wrong.”
WHEN THINGS GO WRONG
In one case handled by Shine, a young woman suffered a severe infection after having breast implants in Thailand.
Despite being reassured by the Thai doctor her black nipples, soreness and fever were normal, the woman had to seek treatment in Australia — where the implants were removed.
Medical law department manager Clare Eves said the woman was left with poor health, disfigurement and a psychiatric injury.
“Due to the difficulties in succeeding in the claim against the hospital or surgeon involved, a claim was pursued against the medical tour operator only,” said Ms Eves.
Travel insurance expert Michelle Hutchison said Australians currently spent an estimated $300 million a year on cosmetic surgery overseas.
“Globally, only a handful of insurers have introduced specialist medical travel insurance cover,” said Ms Hutchison.
“Going overseas for a cheaper procedure is nothing new, but we are only just starting to see Australian insurance companies jump on board to offer cover.”
She said Go Insurance was one of the first to offer Australian travellers cover for dental procedures carried out overseas, and US firm Custom Assurance Placements provided cover for medical complications up to six-months after surgery.