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 ( 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.