March 17, 2015 8:10 pm
Updated: March 17, 2015 9:18 pm

Thousands of Albertans seek medical treatment out of country: report


CALGARY – Nadine Foster never intended to become a medical tourist. The Calgary woman suffered from chronic shoulder pain but said she was told she wasn’t considered a priority patient for surgery in Alberta.

“I hadn’t been able to sleep without the use of narcotic pain medication because the pain was so severe,” Foster explained. “At 35 years old and a mother of two young kids, it just wasn’t working for me.”

Foster ultimately decided to pay $18,000 out of pocket for private surgery in Montana.

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“I’m pain-free now though, and completely healed. I just can’t believe the [Alberta Health] system wouldn’t prioritize someone whose condition doesn’t meet their criteria, even though it was so debilitating.”

READ MORE: Calgary woman forced to go to US, pay out of pocket for brain surgery

Katrina Fontaine also traveled to the U.S. for medical care last year.   The social worker suffers from  Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a rare connective tissue disorder that was causing disabling pain.

“I was completely bedridden. I was supported with feeding tubes and a line into my heart,” she said.  “I had a very poor quality of life.”

Specialists in Canada recommended supportive care but a U.S. specialist offered a surgical solution. After paying $200,000 in out-of-pocket travel and medical expenses for a series of three surgeries, Fontaine says her life has completely changed.

“It’s absolutely amazing; I haven’t been admitted to hospital once since my last surgery. I never dreamed my life could be this great.”

According to a new report from the Fraser Institute, more than 52,000 Canadians sought non-emergency medical treatment outside of Canada last year; almost 6,000 of those patients were from Alberta. Across the country, neurosurgeons reported the highest percentage of patients travelling abroad for treatment, but within Alberta most patients traveled for orthopedic surgery.

Leaving Canada for Medical Care infographic

“With this particular study we do not actually have a direct link telling us why Canadians have traveled abroad to receive treatment,” said study co-author Bacchus Barua.  “One very plausible explanation may have to do with the long wait times Canadians face for treatment.”

According to Alberta Health Services, 90 per cent of patients wait over 49 weeks between the time they meet with a surgical specialist to when they get into an operating room for knee replacement surgery. For a hip replacement, patients wait up to 38 weeks; for a spinal surgery, the wait can be as long as 37 weeks.

Barua says he hopes the report prompts a conversation around healthcare access in Canada.

“It reminds us that we need to think about why these Canadians can’t receive care in this country–either through the public system or by paying out-of-pocket–which they’re doing anyway.”

READ MORE: Calgary mom calls for more mental health beds after son waits 50+ hours for care

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