Tourism at the Expense of Health

Medical tourists are getting precedence, while the hospital to bed ratio in Israel is among the lowest in the OECD.

On Thursday, Haaretz health correspondent Dan Even revealed a disturbing trend: Hospitals are favoring foreign patients over Israeli citizens. Over the last few years, medical tourism has become an enticing source of income for hospitals, but it risks undermining the service Israeli patients receive.

The temptations of medical tourism are enormous. Medical tourists arrive in Israel for a short stay, get treated, pay and disappear. These provider-customer relations are certainly more convenient than a complex, ongoing commitment to a local patient.

The hospitals say medical tourism − bringing in around NIS 200 million a year according to the Health Ministry, NIS 500 million according to other estimates − helps them develop and thrive. Reality, however, is very different. The tremendous income reaches the hospitals unmonitored, the hospitals market themselves through a private organization chosen without a tender, and the health-care system has no way to channel profits to the needs for which they are ostensibly sought.

Meanwhile, waiting lists for operations and specialist appointments are getting longer. The hospital to bed ratio in Israel is among the lowest in the OECD, intensive-care units are suffering an acute bed shortage, and all departments are experiencing a disconcerting lack of doctors and nurses.

The vast sums brought in by medical tourism could help develop medicine in Israel. But this benefit will only be true if medical tourism is tightly monitored and hospitals are forced to act transparently, investing their profits in nothing but the well-being of Israeli patients.

The Health Ministry must set up a special monitoring process that would investigate all aspects of medical tourism and put in place strict regulations to prevent criminal practices like paying private commissions to physicians and outsourcing appointment-making. Licenses should be withdrawn from doctors involved in such practices.

Such monitoring may yet make medical tourism a positive instrument of leverage. Meanwhile, with the lack of monitoring to keep hospitals’ conduct in check, medical tourism is little more than an albatross around the Israeli patient’s neck.