Israel Weighing Major Expansion of Medical Tourism

Health minister's plan would let state hospitals dedicate up to a quarter of activities in every ward to treating visiting foreigners.

The government is weighing a major expansion of medical tourism, with a plan to allow state-run hospitals to dedicate up to quarter of their activites in every ward to treating foreigners visiting for medical treatment.

Under a plan being advanced by Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, hospitals in the periphery would be allowed to devote up to 15% of total activity to foreigners traveling to Israel for medical treatment, while other government hospitals would be limited to 10%, according to the proposal submitted to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"A great many people from around the world want to come and be treated in Israel," Litzman wrote in a letter accompanying the proposal. "It will bring significant and welcome income to the country and, properly managed, the amounts will be considerable."

Medical tourist is already well established in Israel. By most estimates some 30,000 foreign tourists are treated every year, 80 percent of them for cancer. They are generally treated at the country's largest hospitals, including Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer; Hadassah University Hospital; Assouta Medical Center; Sourasky Medical Center (Ichilov Hospital); and Rambam Medical Center.

It is a big and growing business. The Health Ministry said government hospitals alone earned NIS 240 million in revenues last year from medical tourism, nearly a 50% jump from NIS 168 million in 2010. That figure doesn't include hospitals run by the health maintenance organizations or private institutions like Hadassah. Litzman also proposes establishing a privately financed hospital dedicated entirely to serving medical tourists, the aim being to alleviate favoritism toward foreign patients over local ones in the public system. It would also relieve congestion in the wards and operating rooms, according to Litzman.

The new private hospital, says Litzman in the proposal, would be established by a body "that currently has no other private hospital," thereby eliminating Assouta Medical Center as a candidate. Israelis would be barred from receiving treatment at the new hospital. The proposal, however, doesn't say how many patients it would accommodate.

Litzman lists a number of restrictions: Use of government hospital facilities to treat tourists would be allowed only after regular working hours, meaning afternoons, Fridays, and Saturday nights. Also, Litzman insists that a tourist "won't receive any preference over an Israeli citizen during hospitalization."

The deputy minister said off-hours medicine would be beneficial to the economy and the medical system also by making better use of equipment and facilities.

"I have long been disturbed by the fact that from early Thursday afternoon until Sunday morning, only lower-level doctors are working in the hospitals," he said.

The proposal comes three months after Harel Locker, director-general of the Prime Minister's Office, convened a meeting with the senior officials of the health, tourism, and finance ministries and attended by Litzman, at which Locker asked the participants to prepare a plan for expanding Israel's medical tourism.

Having categorically rejected Locker's initiative until now, the Finance Ministry is expected to oppose it. The treasury is worried about the crowding in hospitals that it would cause, noting that some wards are already filled to capacity. It is also concerned that because medical tourists are more financially lucrative for hospitals, they gain preference over Israeli patients.

Furthermore, the treasury fears that a dramatic increase in medical tourism will drive up prices across the entire medical system and inflate national health care costs and doctors' salaries.