The philosophy behind the medical tourism sales pitch may sound superficial –"Beaming white teeth! A hair transplant! Larger breasts! And a holiday in exotic India or beautiful Thailand!" – but the lure of cheap beautification surgeries is increasingly capturing the attention of our nation.
However, with no regulating body to oversee the industry, hardline data on the movements of medical tourists is scarce. According to 2015 research published in Australian Family Physician (AFP), the worldwide medical tourism industry is estimated to be growing at 20-30 per cent a year, yielding an estimated $100 billion per year, with up to 750,000 medical tourists each year globally.
It’s estimated that more than 15,000 Aussies are traveling overseas, mainly to South-East Asia, just for cosmetic surgery: think breast augmentation, facelifts and liposuction, but also cheap dentistry services, fertility treatments and even stem cell tissue transplants.
The Australian-based medical tourism agent, Medical Tourism Abroad (MTB), is but one agency helping to fuel the industry’s increase and encourage Australian interest in traveling overseas for surgery.
“We’re like a travel agent,” says MTB director, Kanika Gupta. “We can help you book but we can’t give you medical advice.”
MTB connects Australians and New Zealanders seeking medical treatment with internationally accredited hospitals and specialist clinics throughout Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, India and Turkey.
Ms Gupta tells SBS that most customers ask for dentistry services, eye surgery, or a hair transplant. “It might cost $6-12 per hair graft in Australia. But overseas, it costs AUD $2-3. In the end, you save thousands.”
"Business growth is owed mostly to the marketing wonders of the internet, as more customers ‘Google’ the credibility of doctors and talk to other patients about their experiences in online forums."
She also explains that December 2015 was a great month for business: her organisation received more than 60 enquiries from Antipodeans in search of a good deal on overseas operations. That may not sound like a huge deal numerically in the grand scheme of things, but this is only the start for MTB.
“We want to get around 200 enquiries per month. We have an enquiry-to-sales conversion rate of one-in-every three.”
Business growth, she says, is owed mostly to the marketing wonders of the internet, as more customers ‘Google’ the credibility of doctors and talk to other patients about their experiences in online forums.
“Around 80 per cent of our leads come from the internet. From a patient’s point of view, our processes and policies and [those of the hospital or clinic] are transparent because of the internet.”
But it’s not just Medical Tourism Abroad’s business that is growing. Health insurer, nib, is also on board, launching a subsidiary service, nib options, in 2014 to helps members connect with medical professions overseas for medical procedures, which sounds very ‘agent-like’.
Even still, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) believes the industry is not transparent, nor is it safe.
“Medical tourism begs more questions than answers,” AMA national vice president, Dr Stephen Parnis tells SBS. "We can’t make guarantees about health care in other parts of the world as we don’t know what levels of control and regulation they have.”
He praises the wonders of the internet in helping doctors and patients in rural and remote Australia access telemedicine services. But this is not the same thing.
“Technology is not a complete substitute for medical interaction. There are times when you and the doctor need to be in the room with the patient and physically examine them. And the same goes for pre and post-op care.”
Tiffany Hong begs to differ. She’s the head of marketing at Beverly Wilshire Medical Centre in Malaysia, which treated around 720 Aussies seeking cosmetic and dental surgery in 2015.
“You can ‘Google’ anything on us,” Ms Hong explains. “Once you research, you will see all the information online is equivalent to transparency.”
She says the centre has won awards for its high standards in medical tourism and, like many of her local competitors, is backed by the Malaysian government to promote its business in Australia.
“Overall, Malaysia’s medical tourism is of a very high standard because of our education system [is of a high standard].”
But Dr Parnis asks, are their health 'standards' the same as ours?
“And what happens when a complication occurs?” he questions. “I have personal experience of treating people who returned from overseas having suffered a complication, and because they were treated overseas, our ability to understand what has happened was limited because of limited documentation.”
Ms Hong accepts this point but promises that complications ‘hardly’ ever occur.
“We are talking about 1 in 10,” she tells SBS. “But usually the doctor advises the patient to stay about 14 days in Malaysia after the treatment so they can do a follow-up and make sure all is okay before flying home.”
Ms Gupta says treatments never go wrong “because we are selective with the hospitals and clinics we choose”.
However, she clarifies, “if something does happen, it’s usually because the patient hasn’t taken their medication or taken proper care of themselves after treatment”.
She also confirms that if procedures don’t go to plan, the international doctor not her agency is liable.
“To be transparent, my honest answer would be to please take travel insurance,” says Ms Gupta. “In the medical field, anywhere around the world, anything can happen.”