A new report from the Fraser Institute estimates that more than 63,000 Canadians travelled abroad for medical care in 2016.
The think-tank says that's a nearly 40-per-cent increase over the previous year, and may be related to long wait times for medical procedures in Canada. But one professor warns the data is based only on estimates, making it highly questionable.
Since there is no readily available data on Canadians leaving the country for medical care, Fraser Institute relied on its surveys of Canadian physicians in 12 specialties, including neurosurgery, orthopedic surgery, cardiovascular surgery, urology and oncology.
The institute asked the specialists to approximate the percentage of their patients who received non-emergency treatment outside of Canada in the previous 12 months. Based on that data, the institute estimates that 63,459 Canadians left the country for non-urgent medical care in 2016.
Nearly 9,500 patients travelled abroad for general surgeries, about 6,400 sought urology treatments and just over 5,000 left the country for procedures such as colonoscopies and angiographies (examinations of veins and arteries), according to the report.
The Fraser Institute says the top three provinces from which patients travelled abroad for treatment are:
- Ontario: 26,513 patients
- British Columbia: 15,372 patients
- Alberta: 9,067 patients
"If that many Canadians are willing to pay out of pocket to get faster access to the treatment they need, that means they are dissatisfied with the quality of care," said Yanick Labrie, a senior Fraser Institute fellow and one of the authors of the report.
The report says "one explanation" for patients leaving the country may be the long wait times in Canada. It also notes that some patients may be sent out of country for treatment, at the expense of the public health care system, because the procedure or equipment they need are not available in their jurisdiction.
Jeremy Snyder, a professor at Simon Fraser University's faculty of health sciences, said the Fraser Institute is sending a strong message that Canada has a big medical tourism problem due to massive wait times at home, which is not true.
"While we do know that a lot of Canadians are going abroad for care, the numbers the Fraser Institute is producing in this report aren't really accurate," Snyder told CTV News. "I don't think there's a really strong backing for them."
Snyder said there is no question that wait times are an issue in the Canadian health-care system and that some Canadians seek medical care elsewhere. But they do so for a number of different reasons, he said.
"It could be to save money for elective treatments, it could be to access experimental treatments."
Snyder said the Fraser Institute report is based on a questionnaire sent to a "very select group" of specialists who were essentially asked to guess how many of their patients had sought treatment outside of Canada.
"I think there are real questions around how accurate these specialists' memories are going to be about that," Snyder said.
He noted that there is no real evidence to back up the message that Canadians are being forced into medical tourism simply due to wait times at home.
Still, an Ontario mayor who went to Germany for an experimental cancer treatment he couldn't get in Canada called the Fraser Institute report "damning."
Trent Hills Mayor Hector Macmillan was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in January 2016, and hoped to undergo a NanoKnife procedure in the U.S. an operation that would use electrodes to jolt his tumour and kill cancer cells.
But when the Ontario Health Insurance Program denied Macmillan's request for funding for the procedure in the U.S., he went to Germany for treatment.
"Our health care system is certainly broken, there is no doubt about that," Macmillan told CTV News. "I think it's time for a total overhaul."
Macmillan said he's "delighted because I am here." His Canadian doctors had told him that he would likely be dead by Christmas 2016.
"I have long surpassed the expiry date that I was given in Ontario and it has given me a chance to help other Canadians," he said.
Macmillan said he and his sister have since helped "at least 40 Canadians and a couple of Americans" get to Germany or London for medical services they couldn't access at home.
A few months after Macmillan had the NanoKnife procedure in Germany, Ontario's Ministry of Health announced that the province will expand its NanoKnife clinical trial to include pancreatic cancer patients.
The Canadian government says that although Canadians may seek medical care in other countries, they need to be aware of the risks involved.
"It is important to remember that medical practices, health standards and infection control measures in other countries may differ from those in Canada and could result in lower quality medical care," the government says on its website.
With a report from CTV's medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip