Health tourists sign up for sun, sea and surgery

With more people going abroad for operations, David Prosser looks at the pros and cons of health tourism

Within weeks, Amy had found cosmetic surgery specialist Mills & Mills on the internet, arranged an initial consultation in London, and agreed to travel to Spain to have the procedure done at a cost of £3,500. She and her boyfriend bought flights to Marbella for £150 and booked seven nights in a local hotel for £300.

"I got the treatment I wanted and a holiday for two for £1,500 less than I would have paid just for the liposuction in this country," Amy says. "I had the operation the morning after I arrived, and after two nights in hospital I moved back to the hotel and had five days recuperating in the sun."

The operation was performed at a private hospital in Puerto Banus by English-speaking doctors. Before travelling, Amy was able to check out the medical team's credentials on the internet and speak to a doctor based in London about the procedure.

Amy's story is not unusual. Research published by Norwich Union Healthcare suggest that thousands of Britons are going abroad for medical treatment. In a survey of GPs, one in five doctors said that they had noticed an increase in the number of their patients doing so.

David Mills, the owner of Mills & Mills, says: "The main driver for people travelling abroad for healthcare is cost - private medical care is much more affordable in many parts of the world than in Britain."

His clinic specialises in cosmetic surgery - he quotes £4,750 for a facelift, for example, compared with £7,000 in Britain - but health tourists travel for a wide range of medical procedures. They include orthopaedic work such as knee and hip replacements, dentistry, laser eye treatment, and even more serious operations such as heart surgery.

Keith Pollard, who runs the Treatment Abroad website, which carries contact details for hundreds of health-tourism operators, says that business is booming. "We launched our site six months ago and initially received around 300 inquiries a month," he says. "Now, we're up to 1,000."

Pollard says that Britons eager to jump NHS waiting lists are often unable to afford private healthcare in this country. "Many people also say that the main reason they want to go abroad is that they're worried about the risk of infection in UK hospitals," he adds. "It's true that resistance rates for MRSA are much higher here than in Europe, though that's not the same as infection rates."

Health tourists' horizons are not limited to traditional holiday destinations such as France and Spain. Eastern Europe has seen a huge increase in people arriving for treatment, particularly Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, while Britons are travelling to places as far-flung as Latin America and South Africa.

India is also targeting the UK as a prime market for health tourism. The Indian government has introduced a special visa for people coming to the country for healthcare, and tourism officials are planning an exhibition in London in March to show off India's private hospitals and clinics.

Dr Premhar Shah, of the Medical Tourist Company, says that while an eight-hour flight for treatment might seem daunting, India offers excellent value and high-quality facilities. "We prefer to send health tourists to India because the standard of care is so high," he says. "Also, there is no language barrier - all the doctors we use speak perfect English."

Dr Shah's company, set up last year, has already sent 40 patients to India, to hospitals in Delhi, Chennai and Bangalore. It offers hip and knee replacements, cosmetic surgery, dental treatments, weight-reduction programmes, corrective eye surgery, and even some heart procedures.

For a knee replacement, for example, the company charges £5,000, which includes the cost of transport and accommodation, compared with the £10,000 typically payable for the operation alone in the UK.

There is no reason to think that the care that health tourists get overseas is of a lower standard than that in the UK. Even so, British doctors advise caution. Franca Tranza, of the British Medical Association, says: "We understand why people do this, but it's crucial that they speak to their GP before and after treatment." There are particular problems, she warns. "There are likely to be issues about continuity of care if you need further treatment after returning home. Also, people considering going to India or South Africa need to be aware that it may not be healthy to take a long flight immediately after an operation."

This is one reason why Belgium and France, easily accessible by road and train, are popular with health tourists. Keith Smith, a director of People Logistics, which takes up to 50 patients a month to France for hip and knee surgery, says: "We prefer no flying because of the risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT)."

However, even people making short journeys need to take precautions. Check out doctors and hospitals before you part with any money. The internet carries a wealth of information about practitioners' skills and experience, or ask to speak to patients from the UK who have been through what you are considering.

Also, find out whether language is going to be an issue - just before an operation is the wrong time to discover that your basic French is not up to scratch. And compare costs carefully. Some companies include the cost of travel and accommodation in the prices they quote, while others expect you to make your own arrangements.

Finally, do at least check how long you'd have to wait for free NHS treatment.

'I went to Turkey for dental work'

Robert Wootton, from Pembroke in South Wales, has had a series of problems with his teeth over the past 15 years - and a string of bad experiences with British dentists who told him it would cost thousands of pounds to sort out his difficulties.

Last September, two fillings fell out of his teeth. When his dentist said he would have to wait three weeks for an appointment because he had not visited the surgery regularly over the previous two years, Robert turned to the internet to see if he could find someone who would give him temporary fillings. Then he discovered the concept of health tourism.

"I found out I could afford to have the all work I needed done in Turkey, for about a third of the £3,000 quoted to me in the UK," Robert says. "I travelled to see a company called Dental Tourism in Izmir and I met with the dentist on my first evening there. After a week, I was the proud owner of a whole new set of teeth - every one had been crowned or had a laminate applied."

The treatment was not pain-free, but Robert believes it was worth it. "I suffered from toothache when I got back home, which wasn't surprising considering that every tooth in my mouth was rebuilt," he says. "That soon passed and now I am able to eat normally and enjoy the hot and cold drinks that used to give me so much pain."

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