Where is the cheapest place to go for treatment abroad?

We have just published the first independent survey of medical tourism prices - Treatment Abroad PriceWatch 2006.

Comparing prices to the cost of private treatment in the UK, the biggest savings in elective surgery to be made are on prostate removal in Bulgaria with an 82% cost reduction and gall bladder removal, saving 79%. Turkey also offers major package savings in six procedures from cataract removal and eye surgery to coronary angioplasty and partial knee replacement.

In cosmetic surgery, the biggest package savings of between 80 and 85% can be made on cheek implants, liposuction and facelifts. Bulgaria once again offered the greatest savings in 13 cosmetic procedures although Morocco is the cheapest place to go for breast augmentation.

Dental treatment – considered increasingly costly in the UK – is also under threat from other countries such as Latvia, Poland and Croatia. Package savings of up to 61% can be made on dental implants, 52% for wisdom tooth extraction and 44% for full acrylic dentures.

The report on medical tourism prices embraces elective surgery (e.g. hip replacement, knee surgery abroad), cosmetic surgery and dental treatment abroad.

The survey compiled data from 108 clinics, hospitals and healthcare providers in 30 countries, roughly a third of the estimated number of overseas hospitals and clinics promoting their services to the UK market.

A password protected downloadable PDF copy of the Treatment Abroad Price Watch Survey 2006 is available from Treatment Abroad.

Should the NHS extend NHS patient choice to hospitals overseas?

With the advent of “Choose and Book”, NHS patients are now offered a choice of at least four providers once their GP has decided that a referral is required. These providers can be NHS trusts, foundation trusts, treatment centres, or private hospitals. Will, at some stage, this choice be extended to include hospitals in Europe and further afield?.

The UK health services are suffering from a shortage of qualified nursing and medical staff, and this is constraining NHS effectiveness in reducing waiting lists. One of the solutions has been to import staff from other countries, but will the NHS turn to exporting patients as an alternative solution? A pilot project managed by Guy's and St. Thomas' Hospital has already explored this approach. The project offered mostly elderly patients who had been on the waiting list for more than 6 months, the option of orthopaedic surgery in Belgium. In total, nearly 500 UK patients travelled to the five selected Belgian hospitals for orthopaedic surgery between June 2003 and April 2005. Patients were extremely positive about their experience and the quality of care that they received.

Given the choice of an operation at a UK hospital in three or four months time, or an operation next week in a state of the art hospital in Belgium, India or Poland, how many UK patients might choose the latter?

India: a global destination for medical tourism

India is the top global destination for medical tourism, according to a new market research report. A study on the Indian Healthcare sector, conducted by RNCOS, has revealed the country's medical tourism market to be worth over $310 million, expected to rise to $2 billion by 2012. Medical infrastructure and technology in India are accepted to be on a par with the UK and the US and the efficient services and affordable hospital expenses make it an attractive choice for patients seeking treatment abroad. Figures show that 120,000 overseas patients travelled to India in 2005 to receive private medical treatment and this is expected to rise by 30 per cent. The most common treatments that visitors seek are heart surgery, knee surgery, cosmetic surgery and dental care, procedures which patients may not be eligible for under the NHS system and which generally have long waiting lists in the UK.

RNCOS concluded: "The healthcare industry overview shows that the medical infrastructure and technology in [India] is in par with those in USA, UK and Europe. "India can vie with some of its best hospitals and treatment centres in the world and therefore make it a favourable destination."

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Health and medical tourism - a growth business.

Health and medical tourism is a growth business. More and more UK patients are choosing to go as far afield as Brazil, South Africa and Malaysia for cosmetic surgery. But the growth isn’t restricted to the “nip ‘n tuck holiday”. According to Norwich Union Healthcare’s annnual survey, the Health of the Nation Index, almost half of patients who travel to another country for treatment are doing so for major operations such as heart surgery and hip replacement.

It is estimated that around 50,000 Britons travel abroad for private surgery each year (International Passenger Surgery 2005) . But what’s the attraction? Why are people willing to put their health in the hands of another country’s surgeons?

The main driver is, of course, cost. By travelling to Belgium for treatment, a patient can save 40% on the cost of going privately in the UK: by choosing South Africa, a 50% saving is possible; and by opting for countries such as Croatia, Poland or India, savings of over 60% can be expected.

For cosmetic surgery, the low cost, the ability to combine recovery with a relaxing holiday and perhaps having surgery unbeknown to friends has meant that popular holiday destinations such as Spain, and Tunisia are attracting UK patients.

For elective surgery, there are other factors playing a part. There is no doubt that the actual or perceived risks of MRSA and hospital acquired infection in the UK, have convinced some patients that they will be “safer” in a hospital overseas. Data published by the European Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance System2 shows that the proportion of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria which is methicillin resistant is certainly higher in the UK (44.5% in 2002) than in countries such as Belgium (19.2%), Czech Republic (6.2%) and the Netherlands (1.0%). But this does not show the incidence of hospital acquired MRSA infection.

A significant trend is the increasing share of the medical tourism market being taken by the “developing” healthcare providers. Dental tourism is booming in Hungary with people travelling for dental implants at 25% of UK costs. Countries such as Croatia, Poland and the Czech Republic are actively marketing their services to UK patients, and India may become a major provider for medical tourism. A study by the Confederation of Indian Industry and McKinsey estimated medical tourism could be worth £1.21bn by 2012. The Indian government has set up a system to fast-track medical visas, and Indian hospital groups see a huge potential market for their services. Last year 150,000 patients from overseas visited India for treatment, and the number is rising by 15% a year.

The internet has played a key part in widening the treatment options for private patients in the UK. In the same way that Britons shop the internet for consumer products, “treatment seekers” are using the internet to research treatment options and compare costs in the UK and abroad. Dedicated web sites such as Treatment Abroad (http://www.treatmentabroad.net/) have developed in response to patients who want more information about overseas options, and to overseas providers who wish to promote their services to the UK public.