THE federal government is looking to cash in on the lucrative medical tourism market worth more than $20 billion a year and projected to grow by 35 per cent a year.
But the Australian Medical Association fears the timing is wrong, warning that bringing in medical tourists could exacerbate pressure on the health system.
The government is poised to spend about $50,000 on a scoping study after a discussion paper concluded that fostering a medical tourism market could prove a boon for the health and tourism sectors.
Australia should target ''sophisticated, wealthy'' consumers, according to the preliminary analysis produced by the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism.
''These consumers are likely to include wealthy consumers from developing countries who are seeking to access higher standards of care and procedures that are not available in their home country,'' the document said.
Australia could exploit its proximity to Asia, capacity in private hospitals, safe and clean environment, and expertise with ''niche'' medical devices to attract tourists who needed healthcare.
''These capabilities may present unique medical tourism for implant surgical procedures [such as] hip and knee replacements, hearing and cardiac implants; laser, burns, eye, vascular, sleep disorder treatment; regenerative [and] stem cell treatments and cancer treatments,'' according to the discussion paper.
AMA vice-president Steve Hambleton urged caution.
''I'm not sure now is the right time,'' Dr Hambleton said. ''We already know that we've got a shortage of practitioners in this country. We've increased our number of medical students. We're having trouble with training of those medical students right now.
''We need to make sure we don't utilise our expert medical capacity in a way that would impact on training or impact on service delivery for our own country.''
The discussion paper highlights that ''medical tourism is also not without risks''.
It could prejudice Australians' access to health services, add to the shortage of health professionals, pose threats to public health and entail extra costs when patients suffered complications or were the victims of mistakes.
Dr Hambleton also saw risks, particularly if senior doctors were enticed to stop training their junior counterparts and to take on fewer public patients so they could pursue more lucrative work. ''In 10 years' time when all those young doctors who are now graduating are trained, it may be a different scenario altogether,'' he said.
The scoping study will assess the current and future demand for Australia as a medical tourism destination, identifying specific markets and specialties; the capacity of the system to deal with this demand; and the broader costs and benefits associated with Australia's growth as a medical tourism destination.