Record numbers of British patients are travelling abroad for medical and dental treatment because of the high costs, long waits and infection risks of care in Britain.
The growth in medical tourism is being fuelled by cut-price private treatment, offered in combination with package holidays to exotic destinations including South Africa, South America and Malaysia. An estimated 100,000 people travelled abroad for treatment in 2007, up from 70,000 in 2006, according to a survey conducted by the agency Treatment Abroad.
High costs and the difficulty of finding an NHS dentist have made dental tourism the fastest-growing category of medical tourism, with Hungary the most popular destination for dental treatment. Of patients contacting Treatment Abroad, 43 per cent were seeking dental care, it said.
Keith Pollard, its managing director, said: "Dentistry is the biggest part of the business. The number of providers targeting the UK at the moment is phenomenal. It is driven by the high prices charged in the UK and the difficulty of finding an NHS dentist. When you find a private dentist, the prices are shocking."
Savings of thousands of pounds have been reported by British patients having crowns and implants in Hungary compared to the cost in Britain. Of 648 people who contacted the Treatment Abroad website and responded to its questionnaire, the majority said saving money was their chief reason for travelling. Almost two thirds said they had chosen to go abroad to avoid NHS waiting lists and more than half said they were worried about hospital infections.
The top destinations after Hungary were Cyprus for cosmetic surgery and India for general surgery and scans. Spain, Belgium and the Czech Republic were also popular destinations.
Mr Pollard said: "There is a lot of misconception about the quality of care and experiences of medical tourists. Our research shows that whether patients are travelling to Hungary for dentistry over the weekend or to Spain for cosmetic surgery and a two week holiday, they are having positive experiences. The quality and range of treatment available, coupled with the cost benefits, means that having treatment overseas is now a real option for many people."
British medical and dental organisations warn that providing follow-up care for patients treated abroad is more difficult and complain that British doctors are increasingly having to sort out complications from treatment provided elsewhere. They say standards of training, regulation and infection control may all be lower than in the United Kingdom.
The European Commission is expected to publish draft plans which would open its borders to medical tourists, allowing citizens of any of the 27 members states to seek treatment in a neighbouring country with their home country, in certain circumstances, picking up the bill. If the proposals are approved, the expansion of choice will focus attention on the performance of the NHS against other health systems on the Continent.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said: "The vast majority of those who travel abroad for treatment do so for surgery that is not available on the NHS, and the numbers doing so are a tiny fraction of the 350 million patient treatments the NHS carries out each year.
"More than 90 per cent of patients rate their experience on the NHS as good, very good or excellent, according to a recent survey."Reuse content