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Open Access Research article

“Do your homework…and then hope for the best”: the challenges that medical tourism poses to Canadian family physicians’ support of patients’ informed decision-making

Jeremy Snyder1*, Valorie A Crooks2, Rory Johnston2 and Shafik Dharamsi3

Author Affiliations

1 Faculty of Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University, 8888 University Drive, Burnaby, BC, Canada

2 Department of Geography, Simon Fraser University, 8888 University Drive, Burnaby, BC, Canada

3 Department of Family Practice, University of British Columbia, David Strangway Building, 3rd Floor 5950 University Boulevard, Vancouver, BC, Canada

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BMC Medical Ethics 2013, 14:37  doi:10.1186/1472-6939-14-37

Published: 22 September 2013

Abstract

Background

Medical tourism—the practice where patients travel internationally to privately access medical care—may limit patients’ regular physicians’ abilities to contribute to the informed decision-making process. We address this issue by examining ways in which Canadian family doctors’ typical involvement in patients’ informed decision-making is challenged when their patients engage in medical tourism.

Methods

Focus groups were held with family physicians practicing in British Columbia, Canada. After receiving ethics approval, letters of invitation were faxed to family physicians in six cities. 22 physicians agreed to participate and focus groups ranged from two to six participants. Questions explored participants’ perceptions of and experiences with medical tourism. A coding scheme was created using inductive and deductive codes that captured issues central to analytic themes identified by the investigators. Extracts of the coded data that dealt with informed decision-making were shared among the investigators in order to identify themes. Four themes were identified, all of which dealt with the challenges that medical tourism poses to family physicians’ abilities to support medical tourists’ informed decision-making. Findings relevant to each theme were contrasted against the existing medical tourism literature so as to assist in understanding their significance.

Results

Four key challenges were identified: 1) confusion and tensions related to the regular domestic physician’s role in decision-making; 2) tendency to shift responsibility related to healthcare outcomes onto the patient because of the regular domestic physician’s reduced role in shared decision-making; 3) strains on the patient-physician relationship and corresponding concern around the responsibility of the foreign physician; and 4) regular domestic physicians’ concerns that treatments sought abroad may not be based on the best available medical evidence on treatment efficacy.

Conclusions

Medical tourism is creating new challenges for Canadian family physicians who now find themselves needing to carefully negotiate their roles and responsibilities in the informed decision-making process of their patients who decide to seek private treatment abroad as medical tourists. These physicians can and should be educated to enable their patients to look critically at the information available about medical tourism providers and to ask critical questions of patients deciding to access care abroad.