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UK is net exporter of health tourists, study finds

The number of UK residents travelling abroad for treatment is higher than the number of foreigners who use the NHS, a new study has revealed.

Researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of York calculated that around 52,000 international patients came to the UK in 2010 for medical treatment, compared with 63,000 UK residents who went abroad for treatment.  

The study of 18 hospitals in the UK, published in the PLOS ONE journal, also found that around 21% of the hospitals’ annual £195m income from private patients was from overseas visitors, despite making up only 7% - 6,722 out of 88,775 – of the total number of private patients.

The study said: ‘Even without taking the cost of the actual medical treatment into account, medical tourists to the UK contribute around £219m in additional “tourism spending” to the UK economy per year.’

It also found that UK residents leaving the UK for treatment often incurs extra costs to the NHS due to complications in the treatment they receive abroad.

Lead author, Dr Johanna Hanefeld, who is a lecturer in health systems economics at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: ‘The level of patients travelling to the UK has remained relatively stable over the last decade, while there has been a substantial increase in the number of UK residents travelling abroad for medical treatment.’

This comes as ministers last week published an independent report that estimated that the Government’s plans for a levy on migrants to use the NHS could raise £200m a year, and found the public supported the idea ‘in principle’.

Readers' comments (4)

  • So there is net profit from immigrants coming to this country.
    No one is taking about people going abroad and private to have procedures done and when things go wrong they come to A&E. How much exactly does these procedures cost to NHS?

    Private practice , groups , doctors , BUPA etc are cherry picking patients and can not even manage that .

    On top of that there is constant talk about immigrants abusing the system. Shame.

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  • I am re-posting a comment I made earlier.....With reference to the PLOS ONE article - this is a very disingenuous article. Many hospitals offer both private and NHS care. It is private paying patients that bring in this money. There is a difference between medical tourism and health tourism. Health tourism is mainly perpetrated by visitors to the UK who deliberately target the NHS, often with serious pre-existing conditions, or who regularly visit family and take the opportunity for a trip to the local surgery, repeat prescriptions, referrals to hospital etc. If you want to know whether the problem really exists, speak to the Overseas Visitors Officer (who has the difficult job of trying to identify chargeable patients who do not wish to be identified) at any major hospital, particularly in London, and ask them for the true picture - as with most issues, it is the people on the front line who have knowledge and understanding of the matter. It should also be noted that the amounts of money lost to the NHS by people who do not pay their bills only represents those who have been identified as debtors, not the very many more who have not.

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  • Oh, come on. What about the British who go abroad to get their teeth, boobs, gastic bands and so on done more easily, quickly and cheaply only to have to rely on the NHS when it all goes wrong when they are back home.

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  • The difference here is that no British person going abroad would get near a doctor /hospital without paying or having insurance. There are considerable numbers of people accessing both hospital and community health services who have not contributed to the system at all and should have no recourse to public funds.
    I am a front line community nurse and see this on a daily basis.

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