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Dr. Eric Hoskins makes his way to a cabinet briefing after being sworn in as Health Minister at Queens Park in Toronto on June 24.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Ontario is moving to severely restrict the freedom of hospitals to solicit and treat international patients after health-care groups raised concerns that well-off or well-insured "medical tourists" from abroad might displace Ontario patients.

Health Minister Eric Hoskins has sent a letter to the province's more than 150 hospitals asking them not to "market to, solicit or treat international patients," unless the hospital has already agreed to as part of an existing international consulting contract.

Dr. Hoskins's predecessor, Deb Matthews, ordered an informal review of the practice last spring after The Globe and Mail reported on the international patient programs at a handful of Toronto hospitals, and a coalition of health-care groups, led by the Registered Nurses' Association of Ontario (RNAO), called for a ban on what it deemed medical tourism.

Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, one of the hospitals involved, said Friday that "we have put our program on hold for the time being," in response to the minister's letter.

The University Health Network said the minister's directions would have no effect on its program because it considers all the foreign patients it treats outside of contractual arrangements to be "humanitarian" cases exempt from the new rules.

Doris Grinspun, the chief executive officer of the RNAO, was pleased with the changes, saying they amounted to the ban on medical tourism that she and her partners had been demanding.

"Our coalition will continue to monitor carefully through our members what's happening on the ground and we'll continue to work with the [minister] to ensure Ontarians come first and the health system is not compromised by making it a commodity to make money," she said.

Back in 2012, Ms. Matthews had warned hospitals that they could only treat international patients in non-emergency cases if no public dollars were used, no Ontario patients were displaced, and all the revenue generated was spent on hospital services for Ontarians.

Dr. Hoskins reiterated those points in a letter to hospitals in August. "In order to ensure future accountability and transparency, my ministry will work with relevant hospitals on a framework to ensure compliance with the above principles and requirements," Dr. Hoskins said in a statement released Friday. "In the interim, I have asked hospitals not to enter into new international consulting contracts that include the treatment of foreign nationals in Ontario."

Every Canadian hospital sees foreign patients in emergencies, such as tourists who get into car accidents or break their ankles while on vacation in Canada. But international patient programs are different: They involve soliciting well-off or well-insured patients to travel to Canada for prearranged care, with an eye to improving the bottom line of cash-strapped hospitals, even if in only a small way.

Sunnybrook, UHN and the Hospital for Sick Children, which also treats international patients in non-emergencies, have all said in the past that international patients do not displace Ontarians.