The risks of treatment abroad

Before going abroad for medical treatment, it is important to get enough information to make the right choice. There are several issues to be considered. 

The main mistakes people make:

  • Lack of research into the clinic or surgeon. 
  • Lack of a proper consultation with the surgeon or dentist. 
  • Not considering their aftercare (for example, corrective treatment). 
  • Taking travel risks (for example, air travel after surgery).
  • Lack of insurance. Most insurers won't cover planned treatment abroad. 
  • Poor communication and language difficulties. 

All types of medical treatment involve some element of risk, whether you receive the treatment in the UK or abroad.

One way to reduce this risk is to get as much information as possible about your treatment options so that you can make informed choices.

Some of the research you need to do, such as finding out about a doctor’s expertise and qualifications, will be the same wherever you plan to be treated. However, getting the information you need is likely to be much harder if you’re looking at overseas options.

First, you may not speak the language of the country you're going to. Second, your own GP or dentist and patient support groups in the UK are less likely to be able to give you advice about practitioners and clinics abroad.

There are also specific issues to consider if you’re thinking of going abroad for treatment, such as how to co-ordinate your care after the operation or treatment (aftercare) and how to ensure that your medical notes are exchanged between your medical teams in this country and abroad.

The most common problems and how to avoid them

1. Lack of research

You may be tempted to make a quick decision based on the promise of fantastic treatment at a great price. Don’t make a decision that will affect your health without fully considering the implications. It’s only worth saving money if you know you're not compromising your safety, health and peace of mind.

Get advice from your GP or dentist. Discuss with them how much they will be involved in your aftercare.

Whether you use a travel agency or broker, or deal directly with a clinic abroad, ask lots of questions and give yourself plenty of time to make a decision.

Find out about the doctors or dentists who might be involved in your treatment and about the clinic where the procedure will take place. Check the medical team’s qualifications (including any areas they specialise in) and check that they are registered with their country’s equivalent of the General Medical Council or General Dental Council.

Find out who the professional regulatory body is in the country where you are planning to have treatment, the standards it enforces and who to contact if you have a complaint. You can find out about health regulators and professional bodies in other countries on Health Regulation Worldwide.

Don’t underestimate how difficult this research can be. Standards vary from country to country and finding out about qualifications and regulations and how to raise concerns in another country can be a daunting task.

2. Booking treatment without a proper consultation

Don’t agree to any treatment without a proper consultation. You must understand what the procedure involves to have realistic expectations about the outcome and to be aware of any potential complications.

It is vital to have a consultation with a qualified dentist or surgeon and preferably with the practitioner who will treat you before you commit to any treatment.

The General Dental Council (GDC) advises that you should always be assessed by a qualified dentist before being given a treatment plan and cost estimate. If the consultation takes place in the UK, check that the dentist is registered with the GDC. If they are not, they shouldn’t be practising in the UK.

Anthony Armstrong, a consultant plastic surgeon and chair of the clinical effectiveness committee of the British Association of Plastic, Reconstructive and Aesthetic Surgeons, says it’s best practice to have two consultations with a surgeon before any surgery and to make sure there’s a cooling-off period to allow you to change your mind.

3. Aftercare

Don’t ignore your aftercare. Consider what care you will need both immediately after the procedure and in the longer term. For example, think about whether you will need somebody to accompany you abroad to help you while you recover.

Find out how many nights you will stay in the clinic or hospital. Consider whether, if you then move to a hotel, there are arrangements in place for you to get medical help or advice should you need it.

Think about whether, when you return home, you will need further care or check-ups. Work out who will provide this aftercare and whether it is included in the total price of the procedure.

Ask what would happen if a problem were to arise once you’d returned to the UK. Would you be able to receive treatment in the UK or would you have to travel back to the clinic where the first procedure was done? It's important to find out who would pay for this.

Find out whether your medical notes will be translated so that you have a record of the treatment to show your GP or dentist back in the UK. Aftercare problems can arise several years after the treatment, so make sure you have full documentation about the procedure.

4. Travel risks

Find out how soon after the procedure you will be able to travel home. Allow some extra time in your travel plans and time off work in case your recovery takes longer than expected. 

Both surgery and air travel increase the risk of developing deep vein thrombosis or a pulmonary embolism. Ask the clinic doing the treatment how soon after the procedure you’ll be fit to travel.

Medical treatment abroad is sometimes sold as a holiday package. Don’t let this influence your choice of destination or clinic. Consider what type of holiday you will realistically be able to enjoy while you’re recovering from your treatment.

5. Lack of insurance

Most travel insurance policies will not cover you for elective treatment. This means they will not pay claims for anything that goes wrong as a result of planned treatment abroad. Malcolm Tarling, a spokesperson for the Association of British Insurers, advises anyone travelling abroad for treatment to inform their insurer and to find out how this will affect their cover.

6. Communication problems, including language difference

Find out whether all the people treating you speak English or another language you understand. If not, find out whether an interpreter will be provided at all times and whether you would feel comfortable talking to the medical or dental team through an interpreter.

The language barrier may not be the only communication problem. Standards of care and the relationship between patient and doctor or dentist may be different from what you would expect at home. Ask if you can talk to former patients so you have a better idea of what to expect.

Further advice

To help you make an informed choice, read Questions to ask the surgeon or dentist abroad.

Page last reviewed: 29/10/2013

Next review due: 29/10/2015

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The 1 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

wolfemurray said on 08 February 2013

Many of these motives seem absurd. If people were as cautious as suggested here nothing would get done. And referring patient's to their GPs is often ineffective as most GPs know nothing about cross border care -- which isn't their fault as it hasn't been promoted by the NHS.

What this page does say is that the NHS really doesn't like the idea of having to pay for treatment abroad.

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