The use of new biomedical technologies has led, among other factors, to an increase in demand for health care. However, for reasons that are mainly economic, legal, ethical or related to a shortage of human resources, public health services in developed countries cannot respond to this growing demand, leaving some patients with unmet needs.
Liberalisation of the international healthcare market and rationalisation of public health expenditure over the past twenty years have resulted in two fundamental changes in the organisation of healthcare services at a global level. On the one hand, some emerging countries have developed private, highly specialised health services particularly designed to meet foreign demand at low cost. This new type of medical supply has a growing influence on the behaviour of patients who are more and more willing to go abroad for treatment. On the other hand, liberalisation has allowed greater mobility of human resources, allowing health personnel in poor regions to look for better-paid jobs outside their countries. This double movement of health professionals and patients is one of the most noteworthy features of the new globalised healthcare industry.
Traveling for medical care, known as medical tourism, has recently grown in fields such as oncology, cardiovascular surgery, medically assisted reproduction, and organ/tissue transplantation. In the last two of these fields, development of medical services is supported in some countries by flexible legislation and the existence of a large number of socially vulnerable people. The result is a wide availability of low-cost resources needed for specific treatments (organs, human material, surrogate mothers, etc.). In order to meet the health needs of resident or foreign patients who can afford the costs of these medical services, human body parts of socially disadvantaged persons are rented or purchased on a more or less legal basis. Commodification of human body parts is another feature of the global healthcare market. A new type of trade based on increasing social inequality in most societies and between countries is developing. The result is an economy that is not only comparable to a neo-colonial one, but also to a kind of cannibal market.
In order to better understand various aspects of this new market and assess its implications for the future, it is proposed that an international and multidisciplinary conference be organised in Geneva, Switzerland on February 6-7, 2014. The major objectives of the conference will be: (i) to analyse, from a social sciences perspective, the globalised development of the commodification of the human body for medical purposes; (ii) to develop the outline of a research agenda based on key ideas and findings that emerge from the discussions; and (iii) to create an international network of social scientists for this topic. The discussions will be based on these four case studies: (a) the unregulated market of assisted reproduction technology and in particular the development of commercial surrogacy; (b) the conditions for organ harvesting that feeds the market for transplantation; (c) the "brain drain" of health professionals which reduces the capacity of poor countries to meet their health challenges; and (d) the development of private institutions that collect, store and sell human material (gametes, embryos, blood, tissues, etc.). Four areas in which the growth of this market has significant human, social, medical, economic, legal, religious and ethical implications.
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