“Medical tourism” has become an established feature of healthcare provision for UK patients. According to the International Passenger Survey1, 63,000 UK residents travelled abroad in 2010 specifically to obtain medical treatment. By comparison, 52,000 overseas residents came into the UK for treatment. So, the UK has become a net exporter of patients. This is a remarkable turnaround from the heydays of the 80’s and 90’s when patients from all over Europe and the world came to the UK to benefit from the expertise of our clinicians and hospitals, particularly the expertise and services around Harley Street and our Central London hospitals.

A survey of the experiences of 650 medical tourists conducted by Treatment Abroad2 uncovered some of the reasons behind this patient exodus, and demonstrates that patient experiences of overseas treatment have been incredibly positive.

The motivation for going abroad varies for different types of treatment, but NHS waiting times and the high cost of private treatment in the UK are the primary factors. Savings on treatment costs were the main reason for travel for 92% of the survey respondents. Around 40% of medical tourists go abroad for dental treatment to countries such as Hungary, Poland and Croatia where savings of around 70% can be expected. Low costs of cosmetic surgery abroad have made cosmetic treatments available to middle or low income groups in the UK who previously could not have afforded treatment.

Although cost savings and NHS waiting lists are the key drivers for elective surgery patients (who are seeking operations such as knee and hip replacements), there are real concerns about hospital infection rates in the UK. 56% of the patients in the research said that choosing “safer” hospitals abroad is an important factor in their decision.

Despite the growth of “medical travel agencies”, around two-thirds of UK medical tourists arrange their treatment directly with a clinic, hospital, doctor or dentist. The medical tourism provider market is still very fragmented, and awaits the arrival of a significant player in the UK. There are many operators in the sector including one or two person “medical travel facilitation” businesses and individual doctors and dentists abroad who see the potential of the UK market.

The internet is now a key resource for people seeking information about healthcare, and this is certainly true of those considering treatment abroad. The internet is the main source of information for prospective medical tourists (68% rated it the main source of information), followed by magazines and newspapers (24%), and recommendations from friends or relatives (22%).

Expenditure per patient is significant: around £4,100 for dental patients, £3,400 for cosmetic surgery and £3,500 for elective surgery. In 2007, the UK medical tourism market is estimated at around £375 million.

But are these medical tourists happy with their experience? It’s a resounding “Yes!”

In the survey:

  • 97% of medical tourists say that they would definitely or probably go for treatment abroad again.
  • 96% of medical tourists say that they would definitely or probably go back to the same doctor/dentist/hospital/clinic.
  • 96% of medical tourists say that they would recommend treatment abroad to a friend or relative.

Until now, medical tourism has been largely confined to people who are prepared to fund their own treatment abroad. However, the proposed “EU Directive on the application of patients' rights in cross-border healthcare”3 will confirm the rights of NHS patients to extended patient choice...meaning that an NHS waiting list patient may opt for surgery within another EU state, funded by the NHS. (Patients already have this right under a European Court of Justice ruling4).

The EU proposals on the implementation of a European market in healthcare can only stimulate further growth in medical tourism. Medical travel is here to stay; the “early adopters” have been impressed by their experience and are recommending it to friends and relatives. It can only get bigger.

The challenge for the NHS and the independent healthcare sector in this new European market for healthcare is to establish the UK as a preferred destination for medical travellers. Fearful of a loss of NHS patients to other EU providers, many within the NHS  see the EU Directive as a threat and are concerned about the impact on NHS funding and facilities. On the contrary, it gives the UK an opportunity to re-establish itself as a centre of medical excellence and become the preferred destination for patients across Europe seeking the best in healthcare.


1 Office for National Statistics (ONS): International Passenger Survey.

2 Treatment Abroad Medical Tourist Survey 2008: See

3 EU Directive on the application of patients' rights in cross-border healthcare:

4 European Union: Judgment of the Court of Justice in Case C-372/04, 16 May 2006.

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About the author

Keith Pollard is Managing Director of Intuition Communication, an online publisher in the healthcare sector that operates market-leading web portals such as Private Healthcare UK, the Harley Street Guide, and Surgery Door. Intuition is also active in the online medical travel sector through Treatment Abroad, International Medical Travel Journal and DoctorInternet, the Arabic medical tourism portal. View for my full profile.

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