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Medical tourism: how it works and how to pay for your treatment

Gary O’Driscoll

Gary O’Driscoll

Head of Private Clients

Long before the internet and cheap flights became ubiquitous, medical travellers were traversing the globe. The first medical tourism network can be traced back to Ancient Greece when temples were erected in honour of Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, attracting patients from far and wide - and kicking off a trend that has endured through the ages. Since then it has evolved from arduous pilgrimages across land and sea into big business in the digitally-enabled 21st century.

This process of travelling outside your country of residence to receive medical care is booming: according to the Medical Tourism Association, around 14 million people travel to other countries in search of medical care annually, generating between 50 and 70 billion dollars.

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Why is medical tourism so popular?

Family - medical tourism

From dentistry, orthopaedics, and cosmetic surgery to cardiology fertility treatment, and organ transplants, people seek treatment overseas for a variety of reasons - but why is medical tourism so popular?

Affordability

Medical treatments received abroad can be significantly cheaper than at home. For example, according to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS), being treated abroad can reduce the costs of a procedure by 40-80% - depending on your country of origin.

Shorter waiting times

It’s not uncommon in some countries for patients to have to wait a year or more for certain medical procedures. For example, data from April 2021 showed 387,885 patients had been waiting more than 52 weeks for routine operations and procedures on the NHS. To circumvent these long waiting lists, many patients decide to travel to other countries that can provide the same procedure immediately - helping them to prevent further aggravation of their medical condition.

Treatments unavailable elsewhere

Specific medical procedures or prescriptions are not available in some countries. Whether it has been disallowed, is still in the trials stage or has only recently been approved, medical restrictions vary from country to country. Often, restricted medical treatments are offered by another country's healthcare system in reputable hospitals and clinics.

Better quality care

Many of the doctors and surgeons that offer healthcare services to international patients are trained and certified in countries such as the US and UK. Medical centres across the world have acquired accreditation from prestigious international organisations such as JCI, JCAHO and ISO, demonstrating their dedication to excellence. These facilities provide patients with access to high standards of medical care which may not be available in their home country.

Travel opportunities

Medical tourism also gives patients, and those accompanying them, the chance to discover a new destination and a new culture. Many medical tourism agencies offer comprehensive packages that allow medical tourists to receive first-class medical care and explore the destination they are being treated in, once they have recovered.

Top medical tourism destinations

Spain

Spain is firmly in the world’s top ten when it comes to excellent healthcare: it is ranked the fourth-best medical tourism destination in the latest Medical Tourism Index (MTI); and is home to the seventh-best healthcare system in the world in terms of overall efficiency, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). The same WHO report reveals that the Spanish are the second-most satisfied citizens with their healthcare quality in Europe.

First-class medical facilities and services are in plentiful supply: Spain is home to more than 750 hospitals, 1.21 million hospital beds, and 450,000 doctors and nurses offering 2.4 million surgeries per year. Medical tourists typically flock here for advanced orthopaedic, cosmetic, and dental procedures at competitive prices.

United Kingdom

United Kingdom

The UK is ranked the fifth-best medical tourism destination in the MTI. With a wide range of medical facilities specialising in a variety of fields, London is the beating heart of medical tourism in the UK - from Moorfields Eye Hospital to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. These world-class facilities and services - which are particularly popular with medical tourists from the Middle East - are complemented by London’s accessibility, with the UK capital served by six international airports and the Eurostar.

France

France

Medical tourism is still a developing industry in France, largely because it has not been fully promoted by the French government or its hospitals. This hasn’t stopped it growing in popularity with medical tourists - and it’s easy to see why: according to the WHO, France is home to the best healthcare system in the world in terms of overall efficiency; and is ranked the 11th best medical tourism destination in the MTI. One of the most enticing aspects of the French healthcare system for medical tourists is the waiting times, which are practically non-existent compared to some other countries.

Italy

Italy

There’s more to Italy than historic cities, world-famous cuisine and football: according to the WHO, Italy has the second-best healthcare system in the world in terms of overall efficiency. The regionally based national health service - known as Servizio Sanitario Nazionale (SSN) - offers universal health coverage that is free or low cost at the point of delivery and covers the vast majority of drugs. The national insurance scheme is offered to all European citizens and includes full coverage – funded by general taxes – of inpatient treatments, tests, medications, surgery, emergency care, and paediatrics.

Singapore

Singapore

Singapore has the sixth-best healthcare system in the world in terms of overall efficiency, according to the WHO, and is ranked the second-best medical tourism destination in the MTI. The city-state welcomes around 500,000 medical tourists each year, who take advantage of a healthcare sector that is built on high-quality services and an infrastructure that consists of over 20 JCL accredited hospitals. The cost of seeking treatment in Singapore is typically higher than in neighbouring countries; however, it is widely considered to have a superior healthcare system that is supported by sophisticated technology.

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          Becoming a medical tourist

          If you’re fed up with hospital waiting times and cosmetic surgery costs, or you want a procedure that’s not available at home, it could be time to become a medical tourist. Before you book your flights and pack your bags, however, you must understand how it works and the risks involved.

          This is tourism with a difference, where health and well-being doesn’t just mean relaxing by the pool while working on your tan. Here are some top tips to help you make the most of your experience.

          Get a second opinion

          Perhaps the most important piece of advice is to discuss your plans with a GP, dentist or clinician before making any final decisions about travel or medical arrangements. A medical professional can give you an informed second opinion, advice about treatment options and tell you whether it's necessary.

          Do your homework

          Choose a clinic that has a good reputation for your required procedure, and is accredited - nationally or internationally. For example, organisations like JCI and ISQua are accrediting bodies that evaluate clinics and hospitals according to a set of international standards. Always take the time to read patient reviews - visit MEDIGO, as all the reviews are genuine.

          Take someone with you

          It’s preferable to have someone accompany you for both emotional and physical support. That’s why many clinics offer accommodation deals for travel partners - so take the time to research them.

          Consider your recovery time

          It might not be possible for your trip to be 'a flying visit' - depending on the type of treatment you’re having. Some procedures require more recovery time than others, which can be extended for you to be fit to fly home. Consult your doctor regarding how much recovery time is required for your procedure and allow yourself enough time in case a complication extends your stay abroad.

          Arrange insurance

          The government always advises UK nationals to take out comprehensive travel insurance when going overseas. Medical travel insurance differs from normal travel insurance, which will not cover you should any complications arise that require additional care or recovery time.

          Funding your treatment

          Family abroad - medical treatments

          UK residents

          Your European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) or UK Global Health Insurance Card (GHIC) will not cover any planned medical treatments overseas.

          According to the NHS: “You may be able to access NHS-funded healthcare in the EU, Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein or Switzerland if you fulfil certain eligibility criteria. The criteria vary depending on the access route.”

          The main access if you are a resident in the UK is theS2 (planned treatment) route. This may entitle you to NHS-funded treatment in a European Economic Area (EEA) country or Switzerland. This is a direct funding arrangement between the NHS and the state healthcare provider in the country you want to be treated in. Some countries may still require you to pay a proportion of the costs. You must get prior authorisation from NHS England before receiving treatment. Find out if you’re eligible.

          Irish residents

          If you are a resident in Ireland, as a public patient you can apply for the Treatment Abroad Scheme (TAS) to cover the cost of treatment in another country in the EU, EEA or Switzerland. According to Ireland’s Health Service Executive: “all treatment requested must be within Irish law and either: not available in Ireland, or not available within the time normally necessary to get it in Ireland - this will take into account your current health and the likely course of your condition or disease.”

          The amount covered depends on the country you get treatment in and the treatment required. Find out how to apply.

          Other things to consider

          • Potential language barriers.
          • Communication between medical staff in the county you are being treated and in the UK, such as exchanging medical records and arranging aftercare back home.
          • How to make a complaint if something goes wrong.
          • Are you vaccinated against the coronavirus?

          Paying for your medical treatment overseas

          Old couple

          You have consulted your GP, done your research, and booked your flights and accommodation - but before you can have your treatment you must pay for it. Like any international money transfer, this will expose your finances to currency market risk.

          Currencies are traded around the clock - 24 hours a day. Therefore, the value of the pound against other currencies is constantly changing - not just daily but by the minute. Even slight fluctuations can make a big difference to the cost of your treatment overseas - potentially making it unaffordable.

          Even before the pandemic struck, this exposure to currency market risk had the potential to dive up the cost of sending money overseas. Since then, the importance of mitigating the impact of exchange rate fluctuations on the cost of your international payments has been magnified.

          For example, back in March 2020, when the true extent of the Covid-19 pandemic became clear, the pound sunk to its lowest level against the dollar since 1985 and its lowest level against the euro since the depth of the financial crisis 11 years earlier.

          This has brought the need to seek the services of a currency specialist into sharp focus for anyone having a medical procedure performed overseas.

          Clear Currency

          Clear Currency specialises in helping people with international payment requirements to manage their exposure to currency market risk and save money.

          Transferring large sums of money into another currency and transferring them overseas can be daunting and confusing - especially where your health is concerned. Aware of this, we use our knowledge and experience to cut through the jargon and provide you with a friendly and personal service.

          We recognise that it’s impossible to accurately predict how exchange rates will perform; therefore, it’s prudent to plan for all eventualities. With this in mind, we will assign you a dedicated account manager. In addition to helping you benefit from quick, easy, reliable and secure transfers, they can help you mitigate the impact of currency risk on your international payments. Your account manager will work in partnership with you throughout the international payment process. For example, before you make a payment, they can prevent the cost of doing so from escalating.

          Because fluctuating exchange rates make it hard to judge how much you’ll pay at any one time, your account manager can help you execute a forward contract to secure the cost of your international payments. This allows you to lock in an exchange rate for a date in the future, securing the price of your payments when the time comes to execute them - so you can reduce the stress involved when planning your healthcare overseas.

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