2013 O'Byrne Lecture explores medical tourism

The 2013 O'Byrne Lecture, "Medical Tourism: the Reality, the Challenges" played to a full house on Feb. 12 at the U of A Law Centre. The faculties of Law and Medicine & Dentistry co-hosted the lectures in a joint celebration of their centennials.

Raquel Maurier - 12 February 2013

Audience members heard acclaimed speakers from Harvard, the University of Toronto and the U of A's own Health Law and Science Policy (HeaLS) Group discussing different aspects of a very controversial topic. Medical tourism can be defined as the international pursuit of non-emergency medical treatment that is otherwise unaffordable or unavailable back home.

Glenn Cohen, faculty co-director of the Petrie-Flom Centre for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology and Bioethics at Harvard University, spoke about transplant tourism. He focused on the international market for kidney transplants, a type of medical tourism that is illegal. "The trade in bodies is really fascinating," he said, pointing out that it often overcomes many religious and social taboos. An estimated 2,000 kidneys are sold per year in Pakistan. Sellers are largely poor, illiterate and saddled with debt, yet often report no financial improvement in their lives even after selling an organ. Corruption, coercion and exploitation are some of the many concerns with the illegal international trade in kidneys. "But blocking these kidney sales is not going to make these people better off," said Cohen.

Y. Y. Chen, from the University of Toronto Faculty of Law, discussed the impact of medical tourism on healthcare access and equity in low and middle-income countries. He cited Thailand, India and Malaysia as three of the world's top destinations for medical travel with India bringing in approximately $2 billion in medical tourism revenue in 2012. Proponents argue that medical tourism can spur economic development, inject new resources and reverse medical brain drain in these countries but according to Chen these arguments are inconclusive. "There is limited evidence of any positive impact for those low to middle-income countries," he said.

Tim Caulfield, director of HeaLS at the U of A, rounded off the afternoon with a discussion of stem-cell tourism. His lecture focused on the huge amounts of positive media attention received by stem-cell clinics offering treatment for everything from MS to wrinkles. "In 2008 our team found the average price for one of these treatments was $20,000," said Caulfield. "That is real financial exploitation for an unproven treatment. Stem cells are a sexy topic. They're promoted as a potential revolutionizing technology. I call it scienceploitation: the exploitation of good science to exploit patients."