April 2, 2014
Toronto hospitals are unapologetic about raising money through medical tourism and international consulting and, in fact, plan to do more of it in future. And Ontario's health minister says that's OK with her.
But critics, including Canadian Doctors for Medicare and the Canadian Health Coalition, are fearful that the growing international focus could drain resources from the public health system.
"If hospitals have the capacity (and) if people internationally want to come here, that actually speaks to the quality of our health care system," Health Minister Deb Matthews said Tuesday.
"That can actually generate revenue for the hospital (that can be) plowed right back into the public system."
But she was emphatic that Ontarians must come first and that hospitals' international work not compromises their access.
Bob Bell, president of the University Health Network (UHN) and incoming deputy health minister, said the health sector is a potential source of wealth for Ontarians.
In the last three years, UHN has taken in more than $50 million by treating 380 patients from other countries and offering consulting services to countries such as Kuwait and Qatar.
And UHN plans to broaden its horizons.
"We are talking to Brazil, we are talking to other places about the potential for helping them to evolve their health-care systems," said Bell, adding UHN is also in talks with other Middle Eastern countries.
"UHN has a vision of achieving global impact," he said, noting that many health professionals who train in Toronto return to their countries of origin and seek UHN's assistance in setting up similar hospital services there.
That's how UHN got involved in sending a team of about 19 staffers - including nursing leaders, administrators, IT professionals and a physicist - to Kuwait four years ago to help improve cancer services there.
The contract generates $10 million annually for UHN.
"Our core competency is looking after Ontario patients (but) if we can expand our international reputation, bring money home to provide things within our health-care system for our patients that we couldn't otherwise afford to provide, and if we can bring meaningful employment and lots of jobs to Ontarians who are looking for jobs, why wouldn't we do it?" Bell asked.
He said the money has been used to fund research and even pay for a new IT system at Princess Margaret Hospital.
Other hospitals engaged in similar international activities include Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, Mount Sinai and the Hospital for Sick Children.
Dr. Ryan Meili, acting chair of Canadian Doctors for Medicare, said he's worried this could be a slippery slope and that Ontario patients could lose out.
"Treating international patients is a substantial undertaking and our concern is that this will eventually draw on expertise and administrative efforts that could be utilized elsewhere, including the improvement of our own system," he said.
Michael McBane, national co-ordinator of the Canadian Health Coalition, said the problem highlights a lack of leadership in Canada's health system and underscores the need for a new health accord between Ottawa and the provinces.
"This is a symptom of cascading cuts. The federal government is cutting, the provincial government is cutting. At some point in time, the rubber has to hit the road," McBane said.
Credit: Theresa Boyle Toronto Star