Thousands of Britons are heading abroad for cut-price treatment. We investigate the health tourism boom and asks if the benefits outweigh the risks
British NHS dentists were accused this week of over-treating patients to maximise profits. A recent poll found that 7.4 million of us can't find an NHS dentist and the cost of private treatment is enough to make us grind our teeth. Is it any wonder then that more and more Brits seem to be travelling abroad for dental care?
They're more than happy with the treatment they're getting from Hungarian, Polish and Cypriot dentists, according to the first in-depth survey of British â€œhealth touristsâ€, which shows that 75 per cent are â€œvery satisfiedâ€ with the treatment and results. But while the survey results are overwhelmingly positive, there are still concerns from British health bodies that pursuit of economy could put us at risk, and that many packages do not make adequate provision if something goes wrong.
Ten years ago virtually no one had heard of health tourism, but now there's such interest that the website Treatment Abroad (www.treatment abroad.com), established in 2005 as a portal to help UK patients navigate private health treatment overseas, gets a remarkable 50,000 visitors a month. Its survey of 650 health tourists who had used its website found that dental treatment is the main reason for Brits travelling abroad, driven mainly by the need to save on the cost of UK treatment (a crown in Hungary is half the British cost). â€œThere was no NHS dentist available and I wanted the quickest treatment at the lowest cost,â€ one survey respondent said.
But it isn't just dentistry that's attracting Britons abroad. Clinics and hospitals from all over the world offer packages and treatments in dentistry, cosmetic surgery, fertility treatment and conventional surgery, from heart bypasses to knee replacements, and about 40 of them will be selling their services at the first Health Tourism Show at Olympia, West London, which opens next Saturday. Some of the most popular destinations are Belgium (convenient), Spain (familiar to Brits), India (marketing very hard), and Cyprus (a good holiday destination).
Surgery costs can be much lower
According to the survey, the main motivation for visiting any of these countries is not the excellence of their care but cost savings. Nose reshaping treatment costs Â£1,500 in Croatia (before factoring in airfare and accommodation) compared with Â£3,000 here, and nearly a fifth of those going abroad for either conventional surgery or dental treatment believed that they had saved about Â£10,000 on what the procedure would have cost in the UK. So even in the face of a world financial crisis, health tourism may be a business that continues to boom. One health tourism agency, the Taj Medical Group, says that it organises surgery packages in India for about 40 Britons every month.
The Treatment Abroad survey reveals increasing confidence among British people in standards of cleanliness and clinical efficiency of foreign clinics, alongside disillusionment about British hospital hygiene. Nearly 40 per cent of those questioned said that worries about hospital infections in Britain influenced their decision to seek treatment abroad. But an impressive 83 per cent said that they were satisfied with the surgery they had received abroad and only 5 per cent said that they were dissatisfied, a rating any NHS hospital would be delighted with. Nine out of ten respondents were very satisfied or quite satisfied with their experience of treatment abroad generally.
Lack of research
If the survey paints an unexpectedly positive picture about health tourism, its findings also have to be viewed with some caution. Those polled were volunteers rather than a truly representative cross section. There is still an enormous knowledge gap about travelling abroad, with Britons having to rely on largely anecdotal accounts from past visitors and claims from clinics. Body&Soul identified the problem two years ago, when it published a health tourism supplement highlighting that no independent body was collecting information on the quality of treatment overseas. That is still the case. The best we have is a survey from Treatment Abroad, a commercial venture, and its gradually growing online database of patient experiences.
British doctors remain wary
Professional bodies such as the British Medical Association and the British Dental Association are still wary of British patients going abroad for treatment, and stress the importance of talking to home doctors/dentists. Some of the patient quotations in the new survey support their caution: â€œVery little information was given upfront,â€ said one; â€œIt can feel lonely if you're there on your own,â€ said another.
It's up to the individual patient to assess the hospital or clinic's reputation, the surgeon's qualifications, what sort of insurance, aftercare and follow-up is on offer, and whether there will be any language difficulties. â€œPatients should investigate the health and safety standards of the facilities where they are to be treated and the potential impact of long-distance travel on their recovery,â€ the BMA says.
British dentists too are concerned that Britons' enthusiasm for their overseas treatment might be tempered later when things start to go wrong with their filling, bridge or crown. The British Dental Association says that some of its members have had to carry out remedial work - which the patient will have to pay for.
â€œAnyone thinking about having dental treatment overseas must make sure that they are aware of the potential risks and the hidden costs,â€ said John Hilsdon, a BDA spokesman.
Keith Pollard, the founder of Treatment Abroad, agrees that people need to do their research before booking, for example finding out about the accrediting bodies for doctors and dentists in the relevant country (they can be found on the Treatment Abroad website). But he points out the irony that this is something we would never do if seeking treatment in this country. â€œMaybe health tourism has something to tell us about being more diligent about checking qualifications in the UK too,â€ he said.
Whatever the risk, British patients are packing their suitcases and voting for overseas treatment with their feet. Let's just hope that they are consulting more than a Let's Go travel guide before booking.
The Health Tourism Show runs from October 25-26 at London's Olympia. For more details, log on to www.treatmentabroad.com
Top three destinations
Hungary, Poland, Turkey
Most popular treatment: dental implant
UK cost Â£2,000
Top three destinations
Spain, Belgium, Cyprus
Most popular treatment: breast enlargement
UK cost Â£4,350
Top three destinations
Belgium, Spain, India
Most popular treatment: Hip replacement
UK cost Â£8,000
Top three destinations
Spain, Cyprus, Turkey
Most popular treatment: One cycle of IVF
UK cost Â£4,000-Â£8,000
Cost is for treatment only, not travel and accommodation
What to check before you go
Do as much research as possible. Read all you can and talk to people who have had surgery abroad.
Speak to your GP or dentist about going abroad for treatment.
Think about how far you want to travel. Choosing a location closer to home means less time off work, and less distance to travel if you need follow-up treatment.
Compare the costs, credentials and services of clinics. Ask how they measure success rates. This is especially important if you're considering IVF treatment.
Ask to speak to former patients. Good clinics will allow you to do this. Question the clinic on possible complications. If you are having cosmetic treatment, ask to see before-and-after pictures of other patients.
Check the fine print. Make sure that you fully understand what you will and won't be paying for, and what happens if a complication arises or surgery is cancelled.
Check the qualifications of the doctor or dentist. Find out what are needed in the country where you will be having treatment.
Ask if the clinic has an intensive care unit and â€œcrash cartâ€ for resuscitation.
Think about taking a friend or family member with you. It will bump up costs but the extra support may make a big difference.
Make sure that all your questions are answered before you go. Check every detail of the agreement, and ask someone else to look over it.
Trust your instincts. If you are unhappy with the clinic or it seems unwilling to provide information, don't go.
What happens if something goes wrong?
Clarify with the clinic exactly what will happen if something goes wrong after you've returned home. Will it pay for flights? Does it have a UK representative or clinic that will be able to deal with any post-treatment problems or complications?
The NHS will treat life-threatening complications, but any other problems will have to be fixed by you, either by going back to the clinic where you had treatment, or paying for private treatment in the UK.
If you resort to legal action, this will have to be done through the local authorities in the country where you received treatment.
More information at treatmentabroad.com, revahealth.com , www.nhs.uk , hfea.gov.uk
The Treatment Abroad survey of medical tourists reveals the highs and lows of health tourism (the responses were anonymous):
â€œDentist had basic language skills, but the proprietor was fluent in English and was able to communicate very efficiently at all levelsâ€
â€œApart from the discomfort of over two hours of drilling on my first appointment, I had very few problemsâ€
â€œAn excellent way to obtain treatment at a sensible priceâ€
â€œFelt like they were mostly interested in your money and getting you out the doorâ€
â€œThe clinics were very caring, not just technically good. I wish my own dentist was half as interested in his patientsâ€
â€œI e-mailed the surgeon telling him I was concerned about the droopiness of my eyelids and never received a replyâ€
â€œAs a nurse of many years I can, with a high degree of knowledge, say that I have never been in a more dangerous situationâ€
â€œThe company did not state on its website that the price you pay is dependent on the exchange rate, so I ended up paying more than originally quotedâ€
Why Our Healthcare System Isnt Healthy
Most people are well aware that an estimated 45 million Americans currently do not have healthcare, but is the crisis simply the lack
Stopping Hospital Infections
Each year hospitals end up killing twice as many people than automobiles, some 90,000 deaths in the United States. It is not from malpractice, i
Protect Yourself Against the Flu Vaccine!
The vaccine industry insists that their vaccines against the flu serve as the key to a healthy winter. Although there has
Chinese Medicine, over 2000 years old, is an ancient form of medicine. Consisting of acupuncture, moxibustion (moxibustion - using material made up of
Medical Billing Specialist
As Pres. Bush was touring the Midwest, shortly before he was re-elected as President, and even after, he spoke of medical reform centering on
Nasonex And You: Breathe Easy, Not Sneezy
While everybody else is wandering around enjoying the spring weather, are you hiding out in your hermetically-sealed house? Do you dread the star
Chronic Headaches and Pain Often Can Be Eliminated By A Special Dentist
DENVER ? Sometimes as Freud once said a good cigar is just a smoke. A headache, on the other hand, occas
Physicians, Chiropractors and Physical Therapist Agree on a New Treatment for Low Back Pain
One of the most prevalent and difficult health conditions to treat in the physical medicine is low back pain. The difficulty in tre
Web Therapy: Enhancing Patient Communication with Web Access
According to Jennifer Lyons' chart, she's just a bad slip and fall who's lucky enough to be on her way to a full
Increasing Patient Care and Reducing Liability in Seven Simple Steps
When an unconscious patient arrives in the ED, every hospital agrees that timely next of kin notificat
Cetyl Myristoleate Seperating Fact From Fiction
I am a strong believer in Cetyl Myristoleate for the treatment of arthritis. For the last three years I have been res
Medical Tests: What Does a Normal Range Mean?
We have a marvelous array of medical tests available to us. Many of them-typically blood-tests-even come with results expressed
CT and MRI Scans in Neurological Practice
Before computed tomographic (CT) scans became available in the 1970s, there was no good method for imaging the brain. The a
Alcohol Rehabilitation Centers - Take An Informed Decision
Alcohol rehabilitation centers in the United States offer a wide range of treatment programmes for your recovery f
Contact Lenses and Eye Glasses
How is Your Vision?
Notice friends getting contact lenses and pulling out eye glasses?