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Treatment abroad & health tourism FAQs

What is health tourism?

Health tourism is the term for travelling abroad to have medical treatment.

Costs won’t be covered by travel insurance or the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) in Europe like they are when someone is on holiday and ends up in hospital because of an accident or illness.

Operations like cosmetic surgery are often cheaper abroad, but may not be as safe.

Why do people go abroad for treatment?

Different people have different reasons. In some cases a procedure may not be available in the UK; in others, cost may be a factor. For some, combining treatment with a holiday is appealing.

Treatments can be as diverse as cosmetic treatments, dentistry and more complex procedures that may not be widely available in the UK. These include the CCSVI 'liberation procedure' on neck veins for MS in countries such as Poland and Bulgaria.

Research by the consumer group Which? found that dentistry was the most popular treatment abroad along with cosmetic surgery, orthopaedic surgery and fertility treatment.

What are the risks?

While many medical facilities abroad may operate to standards we are used to in the UK, or higher, the same may not be true everywhere. Language may also be an issue.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office warns that emergency facilities may not be available and a risk of transmission of HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C is possible during medical procedures in some countries.

In the Which? research, 57% of health tourists were very satisfied with their treatment but 18% reported problems.

Some of these were problems with cosmetic surgery. The British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS) says complications can arise seven to 10 days after surgery. It advises having a thorough check up during this time and not flying home too soon.

BAAPS cautions against travelling overseas for any surgery without checking arrangements for follow-up care to deal with any complications which might arise. It urges potential cosmetic surgery tourists to fully research the risks and do their homework about overseas clinics.

BAAPS says 46% of people it polled had considered undergoing cosmetic surgery and of these, almost all (97%) would consider having the treatment abroad.

  • 78% said that if there were complications they would use NHS services to sort out the problems
  • 67% would not consider cosmetic surgery outside the UK if money was no object
  • 26% of UK cosmetic surgeons said they had seen an increase in the number of patients that had experienced complications stemming from cosmetic surgery ‘holidays’
  • One in 10 surgeons had seen between seven and nine patients with problems resulting from holiday surgery

What should be on a health tourism checklist?

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office runs the UK's consulates and embassies abroad. It suggests:

  • Talking to a doctor or expert in the procedure you are considering before going abroad or signing contracts. They may be able to recommend overseas practitioners
  • Discussing pre-existing conditions with the medical team abroad
  • Making sure that the airline will allow you to travel before and after the procedure. Is a long flight going to affect recovery?
  • When researching the medical facility abroad, ask about qualifications and experience of medical staff, hospital mortality rates, success rates of your surgeon, infection rates and follow-up arrangements when you get home
  • Checking what's included in the health package, including arrangements if something goes wrong. Could you afford additional fees for emergency care? Standard travel insurance probably won't cover the cost of complications. Don't hide the reason for the trip from the insurance company and always disclose any existing medical conditions. Leaving these out can mean companies won't pay up
  • Checking the written contract with the hospital which should make it clear what you can expect. Things like soap, towels and sheets may be charged for separately
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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on November 08, 2016

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