British people traveling abroad for medical treatment are often unaware of the potential health and financial consequences they could face - with sometimes catastrophic effects for individual patients.

More than 63,000 UK residents travel abroad for medical treatment each year but many are embarking on medical tourism without doing research about the risks involved. These include a lack of redress in many countries should things go wrong, and the costs of non-emergency care at home to rectify poor outcomes of treatments received overseas. Since the UK has government-controlled health care, individuals are personally liable for those costs.

The analysis looked at the effects on the NHS of British nationals going abroad for services including dentistry, bariatric (weight-loss) surgery, fertility services and cosmetic surgery.

Principal Investigator Dr. Neil Lunt, from the University of York's Department of Social Policy and Social Work, said, "We found that many people are embarking on medical tourism with insufficient information and advice, with consequences ranging from troublesome to catastrophic. A sample of patients revealed that while some patients had minor or no problems following treatment abroad, others faced severe health problems which in some cases were exacerbated by an inability to ensure continuity of care or obtain patient records to address patients' needs."

Bariatric (weight-loss) surgery and fertility treatment are common, and therefore particular areas of concern, the authors write.
They recommend that more information and advice is provided to potential medical tourists, somehow even those who may not consult their physician or a specialist website before traveling.

Dr. Johanna Hanefeld, Lecturer in Health Systems Economics at the London School of Hygiene&Tropical Medicine, said, "The people we interviewed are sometimes far from 'empowered consumers' and are failed by the current system. There is a real need for urgent policy action to address the gap in information that exists for people traveling for treatment."

The researchers found that decision-making around outward medical travel involves a range of information sources, with the Internet and information by informal networks of friends and peers, playing key roles. They conclude that medical tourists often pay more attention to 'soft' information rather than hard clinical information. They also found that there is little effective regulation of information online or overseas.

Dr .Daniel Horsfall, from the University of York's Department of Social Policy and Social Work, said: "We found that people traveling abroad for medical treatment are often ill-informed or under-informed and this heightens the risks associated with medical travel. For example, we found individuals willing to travel for treatments to locations that are not regulated by national laws and guidelines."

'Implications for the NHS of Inward and Outward Medical Tourism' Source: University of York