Are there more outbound than inbound medical tourists to the UK?


A recent news story in the British Medical Journal has caused controversy. Not for what it says, but for how it has been reported.

From national newspapers to online blogs; from radio to local papers, and from national television to websites, the story has been reported in two different ways. What they say shows how easy it is for medical tourism information to fall prey to the views of the original writer and the political prejudices of the media organization.

Using exactly the same released information, one group says "This proves that there are more people leaving Britain to go overseas for treatment than coming here." and the other group says, "Britain welcomes more paying medical tourists than there are people leaving our shores for treatment."

So who is correct? The actual study seems to suggest that there are more people coming in than going out, but that may vary by type of treatment and type of surgery.

The study itself has some obvious limitations:
•    It is a very small sample based on difficult to analyse basic information;
•    It only covers private treatment of international patients in a few public NHS hospitals.
•    It ignores the international patient business generated through London’s major private hospitals and clinics.

Depending on the procedure undertaken, patients who travel abroad may also save the UK resources, suggests Johanna of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and colleagues at the University of York.

The research, funded by the NHS’s National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), analyses the effects of UK medical tourism on the NHS, using freedom of information requests to NHS foundation trust hospitals. They found that, despite small numbers of international private patients being treated (6% of the total across a sample of 28 hospitals) these patients were responsible for 35% of total private income in these NHS trusts. They suggest that private foreign patients may be more lucrative than UK patients treated privately within the NHS.

Overseas residents made 31.1 million visits to the UK in 2012, 1% more than in 2011. They spent £18.7 billion on these visits, an increase of 4%. The rise in visits occurred primarily at the start and end of the year, whereas visit numbers during the summer were lower than in 2011.  UK residents made 56.6 million visits abroad in 2012, unchanged from 2011. They spent £32.6 billion on these visits, an increase of 3%. The number of visits to Europe was unchanged in 2012 whereas those to longer haul destinations of North America and 'other countries' fell by 5% and 2% respectively. These official figures do not include any information to suggest how many outbound or inbound visitors were medical tourists.



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