ON THE RIGHT: Medical tourism industry worth exploring
With tourism representing about 25 per cent of the nation’s GDP, the Government has devoted much attention to diversifying its economy by expanding the medical tourism sector.
Private financing for health care is growing with approximately 70 per cent of health care spending coming from private sources. This has resulted in an expansion of private facilities in recent years. At the same time, the Government is exploring expanding the medical tourism industry.
While most of the existing private facilities cater to tourists already on the island, facilities specifically targeting international patients are limited. The Barbados Fertility Centre has been most successful at recruiting medical tourists. The clinic was developed with the specific purpose of attracting patients from outside Barbados to the site, recognising the appeal of relaxing on the beach while undergoing treatment.
Despite past failed attempts to develop facilities catering to international patients, the Government of Barbados has shown consistent interest in developing this sector. Stakeholders within the tourism and economic development sector are generally positive about potential growth of this sector as a means of spurring the economy through job creation, increased training opportunities for health workers, and enhanced quality and accessibility to medical offerings on the island.
However, stakeholders in the public health sector are warier of potential negative impacts on local access to health care if health workers are enticed to shift from the public to private system with further health care privatisation as a result of medical tourism.
Some stakeholders have suggested that medical tourism may improve health worker retention. First of all, development of the medical tourism sector may allow for an expansion in training opportunities for health workers due to increased demand for specialised procedures. This might appeal to health workers that would otherwise leave for additional training and might then continue practicing out of country. As a result, this could increase the number of specialists and increase access to these specialised procedures for locals.
However, some stakeholders are less optimistic about the impacts of medical tourism on health human resource retention and local access to health human resources. While the development of medical tourism facilities may provide financial incentives for health workers, health care providers may be enticed to shift from the public to private sector resulting in reduced access and increased wait times for care amongst the local population.
Furthermore, while medical tourism may increase training opportunities for health care providers, these opportunities may shift planning and training priorities away from local health care needs and towards the needs of foreign patients resulting in increasingly inequitable access to medical care on the island.
These considerations may be important to the development of policy and regulation related to medical tourism, particularly in light of plans to develop a new medical tourism facility at the site of an abandoned hospital.
This project represents an important moment in the development of the medical tourism industry in Barbados. With the industry set to expand, the development of policies and regulations must go hand in hand with this expansion to avoid potential problematic impacts on public sector health resources.
In this way, Barbados has the opportunity to serve as a model for the many other countries in the Caribbean and elsewhere that are exploring expanding their medical tourism sectors.
Krystyna Adams, is a medical researcher at Simon Fraser University, Canada.