Medical Tourism Infringes on Equality in Israel, State Comptroller Says

The booming industry luring foreigners to Israel for medical procedures is chipping away at the nation's equal access to healthcare, according to annual State Comptroller report.

Israel's booming medical tourism industry infringes on the principle of equality in the provision of health services, according to the State Comptroller's report on the health system, which was published on Wednesday. The report referred to research carried out by Haaretz in November 2010 regarding the growing medical tourism industry in Israel.

Despite the establishment of a Health Ministry committee to implement government supervision of the growing industry, regulation drafted by the ministry in June 2011 based on recommendations by an expert panel has yet to be formally adopted. Just recently Haaretz published data received under the Freedom of Information Law that shows that in the absence of government supervision, health tourism at government-owned hospitals grew 220 percent in the two years between 2009 and 2011. According to data presented during the Knesset debate following the research findings, in the first half of 2009 alone more than 23,000 tourists arrived in Israel for medical treatments.

The position taken in the State Comptroller's report is that medical tourism is akin to private healthcare, and thus harms the principle of equality. The comptroller's report warned that as medical tourism grows at privately-run hospitals, a likely result will be the poaching of staff from public hospitals.

Despite almost two years having passed since it was first publicized, nothing in the Health Ministry's draft of the regulation has yet been implemented. The draft states, among other things, that every hospital will give preferential treatment to Israeli residents ahead of medical tourists; medical tourism services will not exceed 5 percent of the medical center's turnover; profits from medial tourism will be used for developing hospital infrastructure; and that a certain percentage of government hospitals' profits from medical tourism will be dedicated to the development of hospitals in Israel's geographic periphery.

In a response to a request for comment, the Health Ministry explained the ongoing delay in implementing regulations in the medical tourism industry.

"The ministry supervises medical tourism in the hospitals, reviewing operations every year in order to verify that they do not exceed the level recommended by the expert committee," said the Health Ministry's statement. "The committee recommendations were formulated in a director-general's memo but at a certain stage following a different policy expressed in discussions with the director general of the Prime Minister's Office and in accordance with the new policy formulated by the ministry with the goal of regulating the area of medical tourism in Israel, it was requested to hold-off [issuing] the memo until a comprehensive policy decision is reached by all relevant authorities. The position of the Health Ministry and the Finance Ministry on this matter is identically and medical tourism will be restricted at hospitals that don't supply available services to the public health system."

Moti Milrod