New research has revealed that British people who travel abroad for health treatment, so-called “health tourists”, are often not aware of the potential health and financial risks involved, including a lack of redress in many countries if things go wrong, and the costs of non-emergency care at home to rectify poor outcomes of treatments received abroad. In particular, many people are unaware that under current NHS eligibility and commissioning rules, individuals may be personally liable for these costs.
The study, 'Implications for the NHS of Inward and Outward Medical Tourism', was carried out by the University of York, and also involved the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, the Royal Holloway University, the University of Birmingham and Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust. It looked at the effects on the NHS of British nationals going abroad for services including dentistry, bariatric (weight-loss) surgery, fertility services and cosmetic surgery.
Principal Investigator Dr Neil Lunt, from the University of York's Department of Social Policy and Social Work, said: "We found that many people are embarking on medical tourism with insufficient information and advice, with consequences ranging from troublesome to catastrophic.
"A sample of patients revealed that while some patients had minor or no problems following treatment abroad, others faced severe health problems which in some cases were exacerbated by an inability to ensure continuity of care or obtain patient records to address patients' needs."
The researchers conclude that GPs need support and training so as to be able to advise patients not only on the general consequences of medical tourism, but also the implications of specific forms of treatments which may present particular concerns. Bariatric (weight-loss) surgery and fertility treatment were highlighted as particular areas of concern.
Dr Johanna Hanefeld, Lecturer in Health Systems Economics at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: "The people we interviewed are sometimes far from 'empowered consumers' and are failed by the current system. There is a real need for urgent policy action to address the gap in information that exists for people traveling for treatment."
Dr Daniel Horsfall, from the University of York's Department of Social Policy and Social Work, said: "We found that people traveling abroad for medical treatment are often ill-informed or under-informed and this heightens the risks associated with medical travel. For example, we found individuals willing to travel for treatments to locations that are not regulated by national laws and guidelines."
At least 63,000 UK residents travel abroad for medical treatment each year.