Although there is subjective evidence showing an increase in the number of people from the UK seeking treatment abroad, numbers are not known. There is no official source of data on outbound UK medical tourism, but the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has estimated that 248,000 UK residents went abroad for medical treatment in 2019, compared with 120,000 in 2015. However, due to the small sample size, these numbers must be treated with caution.
For years, medical tourism from the UK has been dominated by people seeking cosmetic surgery and dental work. There is now evidence of an increased demand for core, elective medical care, with NHS waiting lists driving business. This includes hip and knee replacement surgery, or cataracts.
7.2 million people are currently waiting for elective care in England. 40% of patients on the waiting list have been there for at least 18 weeks. Under the NHS’s own rulebook, all patients have the right to be treated within that period. 400,000 people in England have waited at least a year for hospital treatment, 1,423 people in England have been waiting more than two years to start routine hospital treatment. Ministers warn the waiting list wouldn’t start to shrink until 2024. The Government and NHS England have set the ambition of eliminating all waits of more than a year by March 2025, but this is just a target. There are 600,000 patients waiting in Scotland for planned procedures and 750,000 waiting to start treatment in Wales.
A key difference between 2019 and 2023 is that, after Brexit, the UK is no longer part of the EU Cross-Border Healthcare scheme where the state can pay for overseas treatment. Unchanged is that UK insurance companies will not pay for healthcare outside of the UK.
So the outbound UK medical tourism market is almost exclusively a self-pay one where patients have to pay out of their own pocket. This means that they tend to seek smaller European countries that offer private healthcare at lower prices than in the UK. In some countries in Europe, operations can be as little as half the price of the equivalent private treatment in the UK, even after factoring in extras like post-operative rehabilitation. Popular countries include Lithuania, Hungary, Romania and Spain
Clinics in Lithuania are reporting a rise in demand for hip operations. The country has become increasingly popular because it is easy to reach, relatively inexpensive, and has developed a good reputation among international patients.
Medical travel agency France Surgery in Toulouse has said is seeing high demand from UK patients seeking cardiology care as well as orthopaedic surgery. Acibadem, a leading healthcare group in Turkey has recently opened a UK office to promote its medical services. Online, clinics in Europe are also paying for ads that pop up when people in the UK Google terms, including “hip replacement”.