Background Universal health coverage (UHC) is difficult to achieve in settings short of medicines, health workers and health facilities. These characteristics define the majority of the small island developing states (SIDS), where population size negates the benefits of economies of scale. One option to alleviate this constraint is to import health services, rather than focus on domestic production. This paper provides empirical analysis of the potential impact of this option.
Methods Analysis was based on publicly accessible data for 14 SIDS, covering health-related travel and health indicators for the period 2003–2013, together with in-depth review of medical travel schemes for the two highest importing SIDS—the Maldives and Tuvalu.
Findings Medical travel from SIDS is accelerating. The SIDS studied generally lacked health infrastructure and technologies, and the majority of them had lower than the recommended number of physicians in a country, which limits their capacity for achieving UHC. Tuvalu and the Maldives were the highest importers of healthcare and notably have public schemes that facilitate medical travel and help lower the out-of-pocket expenditure on medical travel. Although different in approach, design and performance, the medical travel schemes in Tuvalu and the Maldives are both examples of measures used to increase access to health services that cannot feasibly be provided in SIDS.
Interpretation Our findings suggest that importing health services (through schemes to facilitate medical travel) is a potential mechanism to help achieve universal healthcare for SIDS but requires due diligence over cost, equity and quality control.
- health policy
- health systems
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