Could international patient numbers to Australia grow?

Every year or two there is a new story that suggests Australia may be a new destination for medical tourism, and a small number of wealthy people from the Asia-Pacific region do go to Australia for treatment. IMTJ looks at the market.

Compared to Asia, healthcare costs in Australia are high. Low hospital bed capacity and a limited number of skilled workers combined with a complex visa application process and low government support have also led to the industry failing to challenge its international competitors.

The Australian government has no policy to attract medical or health tourists, and no public inclination to develop one. Most hospitals, clinics and dental clinics are not interested in inbound medical tourists, or even domestic medical tourists.

Australian dentists and the Australian Dental Association have a track record of attacking outbound dental tourism, but counter claims suggest that Australian dentists work to keep local prices artificially high.

Medical travellers from the Asia-Pacific

In recent years, Australia has seen substantial increases in tourists and immigration originating from Asia and China. This has led to a small number of wealthy people from the Asia-Pacific region going to Australia for treatment that is not available or not available at a good quality of treatment and care locally.

Healthcare operators targeting international patients

There are several established medical travel agencies in Australia who are sending people to Asia for cosmetic and dental treatment. Few that seek inbound medical tourists to Australia have lasted long in business.

Examples of healthcare organisations in Australia targeting international patients include Medical Care Australia (MCA), founded by doctors and specialists. Founded in 2016, it mainly acts for well-off medical tourists from China and Pakistan seeking treatment not readily available where they live. MCA also provides consultations and second opinions online, which are inexpensive options and attract patients to Australia if they need the actual treatment.

Epworth HealthCare hospitals claim to care for 600 international patients a year from 31 countries, including the Pacific Rim, USA, New Zealand, Singapore and Indonesia. The 13 hospitals and clinics treat medical tourists and people who fall unexpectedly ill while visiting Australia. Looking at their total number of inpatients a year (185,000) and taking out the ‘normal’ tourists from the 600, then actual medical tourist numbers are likely be very small.

In terms of healthcare services that might attract international patients for treatment, the Government in Victoria, in partnership with Monash Health and Monash University has announced they will, after years of delay, build Australia’s first heart hospital, the Victorian Heart Hospital. The hospital will be the first of its kind in Australia; it will be built at the Monash University Clayton campus and is due to be completed in late 2022. It will include a full range of ambulatory and inpatient cardiac care, including cardiac theatres, cardiac catheterisation laboratories and ambulatory services such as cardiac CT, echocardiography and specialist consultation.

Cardiac patients in regional Victoria, across Australia and internationally will have access to clinical services at the hospital and through the latest telehealth technology, reducing the need to travel to receive expert care and advice.

Sydney’s Macquarie University Hospital (MUH), which specialises in eye surgery and neurosurgery and is a leading centre for limb reconstruction, has helped British soldiers injured in Iraq, and some Americans and Canadians who needed limb surgery. MUH has stated it is keen to encourage more medical tourism. Other hospitals in Sydney also have contracts with Pacific islands.

Telehealth is growing in Australia, and trials including a hospital dealing with patients in the USA without them travelling to Australia.