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Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Travelling for health: The potential for medical tourism

The Government’s austerity measures could lead to a rise in the number of UK patients travelling abroad for medical treatment, if NHS waiting lists start to lengthen as a result. Many could end up going to newer EU member states such as Poland and Bulgaria, according to a new report from the Economist Intelligence Unit.

The report, entitled "Travelling for health: the potential for medical tourism", looks at the push and pull factors behind the growth of the medical tourism industry. It predicts that, ageing populations and restricted healthcare budgets are shifting the flow of medical tourists. Whereas rich patients from developing countries used to come to prestigious hospitals in the UK and elsewhere for treatment, now UK patients are starting to travel abroad for lower cost care.

Often patients travel to access care that they cannot obtain under the NHS, either because it is unfunded or because waiting lists are too long. Top of the list is dental care, followed by elective surgery such as hip and knee surgery as well as laser eye treatment. Some 4% of medical tourists go to get fertility treatment, and this number is likely to rise as financial pressures limit the number of IVF rounds couples can get on the NHS. Altogether, over 50,000 people a year go abroad for treatment.

This trend could be encouraged by the EU Directive on Cross-Border Healthcare, which was passed in January 2011 and comes into force in 2013. The Directive establishes patients' rights to be reimbursed for treatment they receive in other EU countries, and could lead to more West Europeans travelling to Eastern Europe for care.

The report also looks at the US, where it predicts that the US healthcare reforms – despite meaning that more Americans will have healthcare insurance – will encourage medical tourism, as hard-pressed companies and insurers look for cheaper treatment options in an attempt to keep down premiums.

Overall, the report concludes that low costs, as well as medical expertise, are becoming the main drivers of the industry. This should play into the hands of developing countries that are keen to develop a medical tourism industry not only to bring in revenues but also to develop expertise inside their nascent healthcare systems.

To benefit, countries therefore need to offer a combination of medical expertise, low costs, and an environment that offers security both for patients and for the private healthcare companies that drive the medical tourism business. The report uses data on 60 countries to pinpoint which countries offer the best combination of these factors.

Top of the ranking comes France, while other developed countries such as the US and Germany also scored highly on the back of their medical skills and general business environment. The UK is less well-placed to benefit, partly because of comparatively high healthcare costs and partly because it has only a small private healthcare sector.

A number of developing countries also came nearer the top of the rankings, by offering a combination of medical expertise and low costs. Among them were Mexico, Poland, Bulgaria and India, which will also benefit from growing wealth levels. The report suggests that these countries are well-placed to develop medical tourism industries that will create much-needed healthcare jobs and expertise, as well as generating revenues.

The report warns that to make the most of this opportunity, governments and private companies will need to work together to ensure that the benefits from medical tourism trickle down to the wider population. The industry will also need to develop consistent hospital accreditation and legal framework, so that patients can be sure that they will receive the standard of care they were expecting.

A free summary of the report can be downloaded

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