Medical procedure luring us overseas

As private health insurance premiums continue to rise, so too, does the number of Australians heading overseas for medical procedures.

Premiums rose by an average 3.95 per cent in April, with increases having the biggest impact on retiree home-owners on an Age Pension.

The lure of cheaper treatment overseas – particularly in Asian countries – continues to grow.

New research reveals that, for financial reasons and expediency, three in four Australians would go overseas for surgery.

Financial organisation WorldFirst asked 1000 Australians if they would head overseas for surgery, where would they go, and for what procedure.

Dental work was on top of the list, chosen by 60 per cent of respondents. Few dental procedures in Australia are covered by Medicare, and major dental work such as veneers and crowns cost, on average, $1500.

Cosmetic surgery was second on the list, with almost one-third saying they would travel for plastic surgery. In Australia, popular cosmetic procedures such as breast augmentation cost between $11,000 and $14,000, but are closer to $4000 in Thailand, according to research conducted by Leeds University.

The WorldFirst survey found 27 per cent of respondents would travel overseas for cancer treatment, 18 per cent would consider IVF treatments overseas and 17 per cent for eye surgery.

Cost was the major factor for heading offshore, with Transparency Market Research group saying that a rise in compliance to international quality standards in Asian countries was a key driver.

Expediency was another factor. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) said late last year that average waiting times for elective surgeries had risen to 38 days.

AIHW spokesperson Jenny Hargreaves said: “Nationally, the median waiting time – that is, the time within which half of all patients were admitted – has tended to increase since 2012–13.

“It was 36 days in both 2012–13 and 2013–14, 35 days in 2014–15, 37 days in 2015–16, and 38 days in 2016–17.”

The AIHW Private Health Insurance Use in Australian Hospitals report says that public patients are waiting up to four times longer than privately insured patients in public hospitals – 113 days compared to 29 days – for elective operations such as cataract extractions.

The lure of quicker and cheaper results overseas looks set to continue to drive the medical tourism market. However, there are risks involved, some of which include:

  • when your medical procedure is performed in your native country, there is less chance of medical error due to a miscommunication caused by language barriers or cultural differences

  • when your GP performs your medical procedure or recommends the specialist who does, the doctors involved will have access to your previous medical records if problems do arise

  • if something goes wrong, it’s generally easier to get assistance from friends and family in your home country, as well as legal aid.

WorldFirst Head of Foreign Exchange Patrick Liddy also warns: “It’s essential Australians consider all the risks associated with travelling abroad for surgery, including foreign exchange risks. With costs being so important to three-quarters of Aussies, they’ll need to take into account foreign exchange fees and the value of our dollar when paying for surgery and associated travel expenses.”

Writing in The Conversation, Professor Valorie Crooks says that most medical tourists did not travel alone and that the costs and pressure on carers needed to be taken into account.

“The unpaid care work (travelling family and cares) provide to medical tourists is invaluable. I have no doubt that many patients would not even consider medical tourism without someone to accompany them on what can be a painful and challenging journey.

“Yet, in my opinion, the industry does little to protect them.”

Have you travelled overseas for a medical procedure? Would you do it again? Did you have family or a friend accompany you?

Related articles:
Is medical tourism worth the risk?
Private health system blasted
Dentists slam private cover

Written by Janelle Ward

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