More and more of us are choosing to go overseas for dental and medical treatment. Cheap flights and the prospect of recuperating in sunnier climes are two incentives but more fundamental, says medical search directory Treatment Abroad, is a desire to avoid NHS waiting lists but save on the expense of private care.
"There is no doubt the main driver is cost," says Keith Pollard, managing director of Treatment Abroad, "coupled with the difficulty of getting NHS treatment."
He adds that public fears over MRSA – Britain has a poor record for hospital infections – are also a factor.
Research by Treatment Abroad shows that up to 50,000 people from Britain travelled overseas for medical assistance in 2006. The number is expected to reach around 75,000 this year. What's more, RevaHealth, a dental-tourism company based in Ireland but offering access to treatment worldwide, claims that up to 35,000 people will go overseas from the UK for dental treatment this year.
When you consider some of the savings on offer, the attraction is easy to see. For example, dental implants for someone who has lost all their teeth through gum disease would cost up to £50,000 in Britain but just £16,500 in Hungary, including travel and accommodation. Medical check-ups can also cost a fraction of the price in the UK.
Surgery is generally cheaper overseas as well. A hip replacement, which can cost as much as £15,000 if you go private in Britain, would cost £5,000 in Germany or £3,600 in India.
Over the long term, private medical help overseas can work out cheaper than paying private medical insurance premiums to obtain the same treatment when it is needed in the UK.
But, of course, it is not all about cost. Patients have to be sure when they go abroad that everything is safe and above board. The phrase caveat emptor (buyer beware) certainly applies, even according to those trying to encourage Britons to go overseas.
"Ultimately, the responsibility is on the consumer to ensure they choose the right dental or medical treatment," says Philip Boyle, marketing director at RevaHealth.
If something goes wrong with a medical or dental procedure in a foreign country, getting compensation could be tricky. If the treatment is booked through a UK-based intermediary – a specialist medical-tourism firm such as Treatment Abroad – then customers should be able to pursue a claim through the UK courts. However, as Mr Pollard explains, that is not the case for people going direct to overseas institutions: "If you pay them for treatment, you are in their jurisdiction. If you have a problem, you have to go to the local authorities or courts in that country for redress."
As for spotting a good hospital from a bad one, there is plenty of background information available on the internet. For example, RevaHealth's website contains accreditation details for all its recommended medical facilities.
However, consumers could feel bewildered by long lists, and in such cases, says Mr Pollard, they should look for an internationally recognised accreditation such as that awarded by the JCI (Joint Commission International).
In order to gain JCI approval, a hospital is inspected and has to show high standards of cleanliness and care. Medical facilities with the accreditation should also have robust safety procedures for dealing with blood products to prevent the transference of diseases such as HIV.
Nevertheless, the British Medical Association (BMA) urges people to do their homework before travelling abroad for treatment.
"First, people should speak to their GP and check they are well enough to travel," says a BMA spokeswoman. "They also need to get information from their GP about such things as allergies and previous operations and pass it to the hospital before the procedure."
According to Mr Pollard, it is a relatively straightforward process for medical records to be transferred from the UK to overseas institutions. "A referral letter for private treatment should be obtained from your doctor and this should be passed on to the hospital in question," he says.
The procedure for transferring dental records to a foreign practice is similarly clear-cut. "A panoramic x-ray of your mouth can be supplied by your dentist on a disc and emailed to the foreign dentist of choice," says Mr Boyle at RevaHealth.
In addition, all new patients have to fill in an extensive medical questionnaire on arrival at a hospital or practice abroad. And some foreign institutions have UK "outreach" clinics offering initial examinations and aftercare.