Travel Health Information Sheets
Travelling for treatment
Going abroad for non-emergency treatment is known as medical tourism.
- Medical Care abroad
- Health Facilities accreditation schemes
- Guidance from Professional organizations
- Risk of Medical Tourism
- Advice for medical tourists
Travelling overseas for medical care is becoming more common; cosmetic surgery, dental procedures and fertility treatment are all popular. International Passenger Surveys show that between 2005 and 2009 more than 50,000 British people travelled abroad each year for treatment (see graph below).
Britons travelling abroad for treatment:
Data from Office for National Statistics, Internal Passenger Survey
A 2007 survey of 300 British medical tourists showed:
48% had dental treatment
28% had cosmetic surgery
8% had orthopaedic procedures
4% had fertility treatment
11% preferred not say what they had done
Reasons given for getting treatment overseas included: shorter waiting times, reduced costs, access to treatment currently not recommended as safe in Britain, like stem cell therapy and the belief that care is better abroad. British tourists seek treatment in many worldwide destinations, including Asia, Europe, the Middle East, southern Africa, South and Central America and the USA.
A survey of women expecting triplets or quadruplets found that 25% had fertility treatment abroad with more than one embryo implanted in their wombs. This is not recommended in Britain, because of the risks to the mother and babies.
In some situations, such as delays in treatment, the NHS may agree to pay for treatment in European Economic Area countries. However, this is very unusual and would not usually cover dental care or plastic surgery.
Most medical tourism is paid for by tourists themselves. Private agencies usually refer tourists to hospitals and clinics, with flights and accommodation often included as part of a package.
If you return with complications or your procedure fails, you usually need NHS treatment. In 2008, research showed that 60% of British dentists had treated patients with complications due to poor quality or unsuitable dental treatment abroad.
There are approval schemes to assess clinics and hospitals worldwide to check quality. They include:
Most of these produce lists of approved clincs and hospitals in different countries, which can be used to check standards.
Several organisations have developed specific guidelines for dentistry, fertility treatment, general surgery, plastic surgery and transplants (please see Links section).
Not everyone is happy with the care they get abroad. Risks of medical tourism can be difficult to judge and depend on several issues. These include the experience, skills and training of healthcare staff, the standard of facilities and availability of drugs. In some regions there can be shortages of basic medicines and equipment.
Language may be a problem, do not assume that everyone looking after you will speak English.
Poor infection control can cause infections.
- Your package may not cover the cost of follow up care.
Discuss your plans with your GP and/or specialist before paying for any overseas treatment.
See your GP, Practice Nurse or Travel Clinic to check if you need vaccines and malaria tablets for your destination.
Check the qualifications of your doctor or dentist and ask for references. If they are members of specialist medical or dental organisations, it indicates they meet certain levels of care. For example: the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery certifies doctors who meet American standards.
Speak directly to the doctor or dentist doing your surgery or procedure - ask about their success rate and request to meet former patients who had similar surgery or procedures. Never accept medical advice from a travel agent or administrator.
Get a written contract from the clinic or hospital providing your care. This should include a clear treatment plan, with responsibility for the costs of additional treatments, aftercare, dressings, drugs, extended stay, nursing care and local follow up all clearly stated.
Holiday travel insurance and your European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) WILL NOT cover the cost of planned treatments. They only cover you for emergency care. Getting all-inclusive medical insurance that covers you for all potential complications, and includes cost of medical evacuation back to Britain, may be difficult. Read the small print of your insurance policy very carefully.
If you decide on treatment in a country where you cannot speak the language, will you be able to communicate with your doctor or dentist and their staff? At the very least, learn some basic phrases and bring an English/local language dictionary with you.
Remember some countries do not have laws to protect patients when things go wrong.
Get copies of all your overseas medical records before you leave.
You need to be fit to fly home. Be aware of potential risks of flying after surgery, especially with long flights: these include risk of deep vein thrombosis or a clot in your lungs (pulmonary embolism).
Who will look after you during the journey back and at home? Follow up care might not be easily available and may not be covered by the NHS.
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