“I Didn’t Have to Prove to Anybody That I Was a Good Candidate”: A Case Study Framing International Bariatric Tourism by Canadians as Circumvention Tourism

Peer reviewed: 
Yes, item is peer reviewed.
Scholarly level: 
Graduate student (Masters)
Final version published as: 

Jackson, C., Snyder, J., Crooks, V.A. et al. “I didn’t have to prove to anybody that I was a good candidate”: a case study framing international bariatric tourism by Canadians as circumvention tourism. BMC Health Serv Res 18, 573 (2018). DOI: 10.1186/s12913-018-3385-2.

Date created: 
Medical tourism
Bariatric surgery

Background  Medical tourism is a practice where patients travel internationally to purchase medical services. Medical tourists travel abroad for reasons including costly care, long wait times for care, and limited availability of desired procedures stemming from legal and/or regulatory restrictions. This paper examines bariatric (weight loss) surgery obtained abroad by Canadians through the lens of ‘circumvention tourism’ – typically applied to cases of circumvention of legal barriers but here applied to regulatory circumvention. Despite bariatric surgery being available domestically through public funding, many Canadians travel abroad to obtain these surgeries in order to circumvent barriers restricting access to this care. Little, however, is known about why these barriers push some patients to obtain these surgeries abroad and the effects of this circumvention.

Methods  Semi-structured phone interviews were conducted with 20 former Canadian bariatric tourists between February and May of 2016. Interview questions probed patients’ motivations for seeking care abroad, as well as experiences with attempting to obtain care domestically and internationally. Interviews were digitally recorded, transcribed verbatim, and then thematically analyzed.

Results  Three key barriers to access were identified: (1) structural barriers resulting in limited locally available options; (2) strict body mass index cut-off points to qualify for publicly-funded surgery; and (3) the extended wait-time and level of commitment required of the mandatory pre-operative program in Canada. It was not uncommon for participants to experience a combination, if not all, of these barriers.

Conclusions  Collectively, these barriers restricting domestic access to bariatric care in Canada may leave Canadian patients with a sense that their health care system is not adequately addressing their specific health care needs. In circumventing these barriers, patients may feel empowered in their health care opportunities; however, significant concerns are raised when patients bypass protections built into the health system. Given the practical limitations of a publicly funded health care system, these barriers to care are likely to persist. Health professionals and policy makers in Canada should consider these barriers in the future when examining the implications medical tourism for bariatric surgery holds for Canadians.

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