Ontario MDs to launch medical tourism firm

TheGlobeandMail.com – life/health – Ontario MDs to launch medical tourism firm
September 30, 2008. LISA PRIEST

Ailing Americans will soon be able to buy surgery at bargain prices in Canadian hospitals through a new medical tourism company founded by two physicians.

Markham-based anesthetist Shehbaz Butt says he can provide international patients quality choices through his company, Canadian Healthcare International Corp., at rates drastically lower than those in the United States.

“We realized that we can help the international patients while indirectly helping our local patients by creating additional revenue for Canadian hospitals,” Dr. Butt wrote in an e-mail. He said the procedures would not interfere with care provided to patients here.

He declined to be interviewed in person, though he provided answers to written questions. Markham-based orthopedic surgeon Syed Y. Haider, listed as another company director, did not return phone calls.

Although Dr. Butt would not provide details on what surgical procedures his company will offer when it launches on Nov. 1 – or even what hospitals and clinics are involved – his initiative comes as a fast-growing medical tourism industry is taking off globally.

India and countries in Latin America and Southeast Asia, such as Singapore, have become hot spots for uninsured Americans, U.S. insurance companies seeking lower-cost care for their subscribers and Canadians fatigued by health-care queues.

Although Canada provides high-quality medical care, its long waits for appointments, lengthy treatment queues and a near-constant bed crisis may not make it desirable to moneyed patients seeking prompt service. No queue-jumping is allowed under the Canada Health Act.

However, cosmetic surgeons are able to purchase off-hours operating-room time at public hospitals for local patients who rarely require overnight stays.

Rick Baker, founder of Timely Medical Alternatives, said that while medical tourism is a thriving global industry, “nobody’s coming into Canada.”

Mr. Baker arranges care for patients travelling between provinces, for instance to British Columbia’s private clinics. As well, he organizes care for Americans in their own country.

Jonathan Edelheit, president of the Medical Tourism Association, based in West Palm Beach, Fla., said if marketed properly, Canada could become an attractive destination.

“They really need to have the right infrastructure in place in order to be able to co-ordinate care for patients,” he said.

Dr. Butt’s idea – bringing revenue from American patients as a way to shore up hospital budgets, thus allowing institutions to provide even more medical services to Canadians – is one that has been previously considered.

In 1993, the then-Toronto Hospital had a similar plan for removing brain tumours, performing surgeries of the bone, eye and veins and doing bone-marrow transplants on international patients – but it was never acted upon.

When Dennis Timbrell was president of the Ontario Hospital Association, he advocated a similar plan, also in 1993. At the time, there were empty hospital beds and workers were laid off – unlike today.

“The thought was, well, one way would be to take closed wings and open them up to [out-of-province and out-of-country] patients to maintain employment and to generate some much-needed new revenue for the hospitals,” Mr. Timbrell said in an interview.

Safeguards were to be built in so that if there was an urgent need for a bed, an Ontario patient would get priority. However, the New Democrat Party in power at the time would not even consider it.

According to Ontario Health Ministry spokesman Mark Nesbitt, there is no specific regulation dealing with doctors and hospitals setting up such a company and providing care to non-residents of Ontario.

Markham Stouffville Hospital, where Dr. Butt and Dr. Haider are listed as working, said it is not involved in selling any operating-room time for Americans.

Hy Eliasoph, CEO for the Central Local Health Integration Network, a not-for-profit group funding health services, including Markham Stouffville Hospital, said he knew of no hospitals participating.

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