Medical Tourism

A Medical Tourist is a person who travels abroad for specific medical treatment or alternative therapy to restore their health as well as allow them to experience local culture. Among the most popular treatments are dental and cosmetic surgeries.

Why do people go overseas for medical care?

The Medical Tourism Survey found that more than 50,000 people travelled from the UK to an overseas destination for medical treatment at a cost of £161 million in early 2007. From those going overseas from the UK, concerns about increasing rates of MRSA, long NHS waiting lists and the promise of cheap medical treatment abroad were main reasons.

What Medical Tourism is not…

Medical tourism does not include those patients who have requested permission from their existing health commission for treatment in Europe. There are currently two ways to get treated overseas under the NHS.

European Union regulations of article 49

Under these guidelines a patient can receive treatment in another European country as long as it is the same as they would have had in the UK. Treatment can be at a private hospital or a state funded hospital. Patients will need to pay for the treatment received up front when they are treated. As long as the care is approved they can seek reimbursement, but this might not be the total cost of treatment. Reimbursement is however not automatic and requires approval from a patients own healthcare trust prior to treatment. Under these circumstances a patient is not covered on a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC)

E112 Form

This route allows you to have treatment in another state funded sector hospital within Europe (EEA) and Switzerland. You will need to make payments in the same way that a local person seeking treatment would – this usually involves a percentage of the costs up front. Payment for the remainder of the treatment is made via the NHS and if there is a difference based on your up front costs you can seek reimbursement.

For each of these routes permission must be sought from your local Primary Care Trust or GP first. The Department of Health website gives a full list of conditions and guidelines.

What Travel Health advice do you need if you decide to go overseas for independent medical treatment?

All economic predictions suggest that medical tourism will increase over the next few years. It is essential if you decide this is the best option for you that you are properly prepared and receive safe care.


Medical tourists should be aware that a regular travel insurance policy used for holidays and business trips will not cover you when going overseas for medical treatment. This also means not having cover in the event of anything going wrong with their surgery or, in most cases, even for lost luggage. This is due to a blanket clause on most policies stating that cover is no longer valid if the “primary purpose” of the trip is to receive medical treatment. If you are considering going overseas it is important to think through what you will do should something go wrong with the surgery and discuss this with your insurance provider and relatives before you travel.

Immunisation and Malaria Advice

Advice should still be given by your doctor or travel clinic nurse for the destination you are going to visit. You will also need to consider the recuperation period after treatment and your health risks. For countries where blood borne diseases such as Hepatitis B are endemic it is worth considering vaccination. It is important to remember that disease and malarial mosquitoes have no respect for hospital boundaries. Even in the holiday period after treatment you could be vulnerable to local infections and potential respiratory problems following surgery.

Blood Group

Make sure you know your blood group and for some parts of the world research and discuss with your treatment supplier how you will be able to access a safe supply of blood.

Fitness to Fly

You will need to ensure that you are fit not only to fly to your destination but back again. Certain types of surgery will require longer recuperation and you should allow plenty of recovery time prior to the return journey. Most abdominal or ear surgery requires a ten day wait prior to flying without complications, whereas keyhole surgery recommends a four to five day wait. You should also discuss with your GP the prevention of DVT and consider your risk factors.

NHS on Return?

If you are planning on going overseas as a medical tourist it is a good idea to discuss your pending treatment with your GP and consider if you will be able to receive any follow up treatment in the UK on return. Important follow up care is not included in a health tourism package. The importance of returning with detailed medical notes is essential if you are to receive continuity of care.

More Information and Resources

If you have insurance concerns prior to travel you should contact the British Insurance Brokers association on 0901 8140015 for advice.

Medical Tourism: Your Complete Guide to Low-Cost Dental, Cosmetic, Medical Care & Surgery Overseas by Paul Gahlinger (2008) is a complete reference to treatment overseas

The Complete Medical Tourist by David Hancock (2006) gives an overview of treatment overseas looking at costs, locations, procedures and sightseeing.

NOTE: We have not included any links to Health Tourism companies in the above article, but do have advertisement links on this page to raise revenue for updating the site – it is essential that you research any Health Tourism Company offering such a service.

It is important to remember that you are in a potentially vulnerable position and you should do your homework before considering such a venture. It is also essential that you visit your health care provider or GP to discuss your plans.


Note: This information is designed to complement and not replace the relationship that exists with your existing family doctor or travel health professional.  Please discuss your travel health requirements with your regular family doctor or practice nurse.