As new figures suggest, nine out of 10 people who've travelled abroad for medical treatment would do it again, with 83% citing cost as the main reason for their decision to seek treatment overseas, British surgeons give their opinions on health tourism.
By Lisa Salmon.
Saving money isn't the most obvious benefit of foreign travel - but for those who need expensive medical treatment, having surgery abroad is often the cheapest option.
New research shows cost is the main reason why around 50,000 people a year go overseas for treatment including dental, cosmetic, orthopaedic and obesity surgery, or infertility treatment. Often the treatment they want isn't funded by the NHS, or waiting lists are long.
New research by the medical tourism advice site treatmentabroad.com found that 83% of those questioned cited cost as the most important reason for seeking medical treatment overseas.
Other motivations included worries about hospital infection in the UK, avoiding waiting lists, and combining treatment with a holiday.
Nearly three quarters (71%) of so-called 'medical tourists' saved more than £2,000 on their treatment, while 12.7% saved more than £10,000. The greatest savings were for dental and orthopaedic treatment.
Keith Pollard, managing director of treatmentabroad.com, says he's seen a rapid growth in medical tourism in recent years, but even he is surprised by the amount of money that can be saved.
"So often overseas treatment is portrayed as being a poor alternative to what's available in the UK, and yet it's clear that's simply not true," he says.
"The vast majority of people who go overseas for treatment are delighted not only with the experience and the levels of care, but also with the results - and that, for most people, is the most important thing."
Certainly, the majority (85%) of patients questioned were satisfied with their experience, and nine out of 10 said they'd go abroad for treatment again, and recommend health tourism to others.
However, consultant surgeon Mike Parker, a spokesperson for the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS), warns there can be risks with going abroad for surgery, depending on the quality of the surgeon and where you go.
He stresses that he's been to "fantastic" hospitals abroad with facilities that he'd love to see in UK hospitals, but points out that there's a huge spectrum of quality abroad.
"It is more expensive here than abroad and there are many countries that can provide an equally good service at lower cost," he says.
"I have no problem with people who want to go abroad for private surgery if they've got some money and they want to spend it in a sensible way. But you need to do your research well."
As with any surgery, there can be problems afterwards. A 2007 investigation by Which? found that while 57% of UK patients who had treatment abroad said they were very satisfied with their experience, 18% suffered complications.
Some described infections and other problems, including 'my tummy tuck that went septic' and liposuction leading to 'my stomach leaking cellulite'.
Parker warns: "The main caveat is that you can have complications after you get back and you then have to scrounge around looking for someone to sort them out - or fly abroad again."
He explains that having treatment overseas means there's no continuity of care once a patient has flown home, as patients don't have the surgeon who did the original operation looking after them. That's a very important consideration, he stresses.
"I think people sometimes forget that operations can go wrong. It's all very well as long as it goes fine, but if it goes wrong, then you may have bigger problems than if you stayed in the UK."
He says there's no particular surgery that he'd advise against going abroad for, as long as extensive research showed the surgeon was experienced, with good training and results.
"It's about doing your homework - make sure they've got a good track record and can deliver the outcomes you expect."
The treatmentabroad.com research found Belgium and Hungary were the most popular destinations for UK medical tourists (16% each), followed by Poland (10%), the Czech Republic (9%) and Turkey (9%).
Hungary was the most popular for dental treatment (chosen by 38% of UK dental travellers), while the top destinations for obesity surgery were Belgium (50%) and the Czech Republic (21%).
Spain, Cyprus and the Czech Republic lead the way in providing infertility treatment for UK couples, and Belgium was most popular for cosmetic surgery (18%).
Consultant plastic surgeon Steve Hamilton, a spokesperson for the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons (BAAPS), says he's seen patients who've had problems after having surgery abroad.
"They've flown there, met the surgeon for the first time half an hour before the operation, had it and then flown straight home.
"That's probably the cheapest way to do it, but if you get a problem and it doesn't work out the way you want, aside from massive safety issues it can turn out to be very expensive in the end."
Hamilton agrees with Parker about there being some very good surgeons abroad, but warns: "It can be difficult to know if they're good.
"If you travel abroad, you have to have done your research very thoroughly, and you should have had consultations before the surgery. You should have a specific reason to go to a specific person."
He explains that sometimes people need to undergo very complex procedures which are only available abroad. However, he warns that generally there are many disadvantages to going abroad for treatment.
"Afterwards you'll be far from your surgeon and far from the hospital where you were treated. Even with the best will in the world and the most dedicated surgeon in Eastern Europe, if you're 800 miles away, it's very hard for them to assess you or reassure you.
"If you're looking for the cheapest plastic surgery, then that will be overseas - but if your reason for going abroad for treatment is price, then it's probably a false economy."
Medical tourism checklist The medical tourism advice site www.treatmentabroad.com has the following advice for those considering foreign medical treatment: :: Find out the qualifications and accreditations that a surgeon should hold to practise in their country, and check he/she has them.
:: Find out as much as possible about the procedure you want.
:: With cosmetic surgery and cosmetic dentistry, different techniques and material may be used for different procedures, so find out which method and materials are used.
:: Compare services, treatments, costs and credentials of providers.
:: Ask for the name of the clinic/hospital where the surgery will be performed, and find information online.
:: Read patient testimonials.
:: Consider how long you want to go away for and how far you're prepared to travel.
:: Think about whether anyone can accompany you.
:: Don't let the allure of an exotic destination influence your choice - surgery closer to home can be advantageous if you need further treatment.