Medical tourism refers to when people seek medical treatment in a different country than the one they reside. In the context of this brief it refers to UK residents seeking elective, non-emergency medical treatment abroad. This briefing outlines the nature of the global medical tourism industry, the number of UK residents seeking medical treatments abroad, the types of treatments sought and the reasons for seeking them, the countries visited, and examines the issues raised for the patients and for the NHS on their return.

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Medical tourism refers to when people seek medical treatment in a different country than the one they reside. In the context of this brief it refers to UK residents seeking elective, non-emergency medical treatment abroad.

Some writers have objected to the use of the term medical tourism because they consider it has connotations of leisure, frivolity and pleasure that may be inappropriate when applied to those seeking medical treatments such as dental care, fertility treatments, or bariatric or cosmetic surgery. However, the term has become widely used to describe such behaviour.

While there is a range of estimates of medical tourists, the consultancy Deloitte estimated that 750,000 US citizens sought medical treatments abroad in 2007, and projected that this figure would rise to 3–5 million by 2010. Deloitte suggested that American citizens represent around 10% of the global medical tourism market, although it is unclear what this assumption is based on. This would put the size of the global market as somewhere between 0.5 million and 50 million people a year,

There is a lack of reliable sources of medical tourism data. But the International Passenger Survey (IPS) conducted each year by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found that in 2016 nearly 144,000 UK citizens travelled abroad for medical treatment. The survey suggests a steady increase since 2000, even though the 2016 sample of 250,000 travellers represent 0.23% of the total number of travellers entering or leaving the UK.

In 2016 UK citizens travelled to 31 different countries for medical treatment. Eight countries accounted for 72% of all such visits, including Poland, Hungary, Romania, Turkey, Spain, France, Latvia and Lithuania. Of the remaining 28% of visits, the three most frequently visited destinations in 2016 were Switzerland, Greece and India.

A 2014 review of the medical tourism literature identified four main types of treatment commonly sought by UK citizens abroad. These include fertility treatments, cosmetic surgery, bariatric surgery  and dental surgery.

European data suggest that around 24–30,000 cycles of cross-border fertility treatment involving 11–14,000 patients are performed in Europe each year. Seeking fertility treatments abroad allows medical tourists to circumvent restrictions and access the donated sperm and eggs they want. This can be coupled with a perception of higher success rates in the destination country.

Some evidence from the British Association of Plastic Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons suggests that a non-negligible number of medical tourists who undergo cosmetic surgery return to the UK in need of further treatment.

Limited qualitative data on bariatric surgery patients (patients who have undergone gastric bypass or gastric banding, sheds light on their motivations for medical tourism. These include travelling to receive higher grade medical care, travelling for operations perceived us inaccessible to them in the UK and travelling to reduce the cost of the procedure.

Dentistry is also popular among medical tourists, with some patients citing reasons such as lack of availability of dental services on the NHS, distrust of NHS dentistry, dissatisfaction with previous NHS dental treatment and cost.

Literature reviews and surveys have identified a number of issues that may be faced by people seeking treatment abroad. These include additional risks associated with treatments abroad, professional advice available to patients, quality assessment and accreditation, regulation of advertising of medical treatments and follow-up care.

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