Soaring numbers flying abroad for medical care as NHS lists lengthen

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The number of patients leaving Britain and flying overseas for medical treatment has trebled as NHS waiting times reach a record high, a Telegraph investigation has revealed.

Government data shows the number of people going abroad for healthcare has increased from 48,000 in 2014 to almost 144,000 last year as the health service struggles to cope with demand.

Experts said lengthening waiting times for surgery – particularly hip, knee and cataract operations – and cutbacks to fertility treatment – were fuelling the rise.

NHS waiting times are now the longest they have been for almost a decade, with more than 409,000 people waiting more than 18 weeks for treatment – a rise from 34,000 in 2014.

Joyce Robins, from Patient Concern, said: “It is a desperately sad state of affairs that people who have paid into the NHS all their lives are finding it is not there for them when they need it.

“These are essential operations, but thousands of people are being left in pain and misery – for every person who goes abroad there will be many more left suffering,” she said.

It comes amid a crackdown on “health tourism” within the UK. From Monday, hospital staff will be told to routinely ask patients for utility bills and bank statements in a bid to identify those from overseas who should be paying for NHS treatment.

The new figures from the Office for National Statistics show a 198 per cent per cent rise in trips abroad from the UK for medical reasons between 2014 and 2016.

Such treatments include dentistry and cosmetic surgery, which are offered more cheaply in many Eastern European countries. But health experts said the sharp rise reflected growing numbers of British patients going abroad for medical operations, amid lengthening waits and creeping rationing.

One medical travel website, Medigo, reported a 200 per cent rise in queries about orthopaedic treatment in one year, with rising numbers going to countries such as France and Switzerland for hip and knee operations.

Ugur Samut, it’s chief executive officer, said: “What we are finding is increasing numbers of patients from the UK wanting to avoid the waiting times on the NHS. We are especially finding that in orthopaedics, that is one of the biggest areas.”

Other countries seeing an influx include those which heavily marketfertility services, with a ten-fold rise in patients flying from the UK to Spain.

A seven-fold rise was seen in medical journeys to Greece, another major area for IVF, with a doubling in travel to Hungary, where dentistry, fertility services and cosmetic surgery are popular.

 Countries such as Switzerland and France, both popular for orthopaedic surgery, saw a six-fold rise and a 60 per cent rise respectively, between 2015 and 2016, the figures show.

Some of the most popular destinations, such as Poland and Romania, might also be explained by increased migration to Britain, with some returning to their native country for medical procedures.

The ONS statistics show 143,996 flights from the UK for medical reasons in 2016, compared with 100,338 in 2015 and 48,190 in 2014.

Under EU reciprocal arrangments, British citizens are entitled to have treatment elsewhere in Europe, with costs covered by the health service, if it is treatment the NHS normally funds.

Mr Samut said around 60 per cent of those seeking treatment abroad were aware of such rights.

Why is the NHS under so much pressure?

  • An ageing population. There are one million more people over the age of 65 than five years ago. This has caused a surge in demand for medical care
  • Cuts to budgets for social care. While the NHS budget has been protected, social services for home helps and other care have fallen by 11 per cent in five years. This has caused record levels of “bedblocking”; people with no medical need to be in hospital are stuck there because they can’t be supported at home
  • Staff shortages. While hospital doctor and nurse numbers have risen over the last decade, they have not kept pace with the rise in demand. Meanwhile 2016 saw record numbers of GP practices close, displacing patients on to A&E departments as they seek medical advice
  • Lifestyle factors. Drinking too much alcohol, smoking, a poor diet with not enough fruit and vegetables and not doing enough exercise are all major reasons for becoming unwell and needing to rely on our health services. Growing numbers of overweight children show this problem is currently set to continue


    Professor Philip Schoettle, professor of orthopedic surgery at the Knee & Hip Institute Munich, said: “We are seeing a lot of patients from the UK. A lot of the time it is people working in finance, whose insurance is international and they don’t want to spend all that time on a waiting list.”

    “Germany has very low treatment costs – they can come here and spend their time lying in a luxury suite, with an a la carte menu and physiotherapy twice a day – they are getting first-class treatment and also getting pampered,” he said.

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