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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’.