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Can the US save you money on supplies?

Are you paying more than you need to for your surgery's high-tech and medical equipment? Dr Peter Saul finds out

It started when purchasers of new cars found they could make considerable savings by buying elsewhere in Europe. This market peaked four years ago; since then the pound has fallen against the euro and car manufacturers have cut prices, reducing benefits.

But look across the Atlantic and we find the pound at a record high against the dollar. This makes some products bought from the States look increasingly cheap. Clearly importing cars is not a practical consideration, but what about some of the high-tech appliances and medical equipment needed by your surgery?

Brands on offer from US retailers are increasingly accessible via the internet, but how do costs measure up to UK suppliers? Does a transatlantic purchase really make sense?

Last year one of our practice laptop computers had a cracked screen. Our local IT service agent said it could not be repaired economically; the estimated cost of £399 was more than its value. A search on the internet located a replacement screen at $224 including postage and within a week the computer was back in action for less than half the cost of a domestic repair. How far do these economies extend to medical equipment?

To find out I selected a typical range of relatively high-value surgery items. British prices were found from company catalogues, websites and advertisements in medical journals, US prices were found from supplier websites. Surprisingly, despite the pound being worth over $1.75, savings in my survey were very patchy (see below).

Very good savings were made on the Littman stethoscope (nearly half the price of those in the UK). But most items were around the same price and one, the Audio Dopplex, was more expensive. Also, items from some manufacturers common in the UK such as Vitallograph can be hard to find in the US.

There are some special factors to be borne in mind when buying from a supplier overseas. If purchasing from a company's website, give them a phone call to check matters and gain an impression of the company. Always pay by a credit (not debit) card – this offers some protection against fraud and gives the most cost-effective money transmission.

Expect to pay more for postage and insurance. Items I have ordered often arrive surprisingly quickly.

VAT is a confusing issue: prices from British supplies are usually quoted 'ex-VAT' so an additional 17.5 per cent needs to be added. Similarly, VAT has to be paid on imports from the US and this is usually collected by the Post Office on the basis of the value stated on the customs declaration on the package. In my experience this is more often not collected, perhaps because items I have previously ordered have been of low value. Non-collection of VAT could tip the value balance but should not be counted on.

When ordering electrical goods ensure there is an appropriate voltage option for the UK. But perhaps the major issue with complex or expensive equipment may be the concern over after-sales service and the difficulty and cost of returning goods.

Despite my computer experience, although I might check US prices for medical kit, it is unlikely I would buy anything particularly complex this way.

Peter Saul is a GP in Rhos near Wrexham

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