CREDIT: This story was first seen in The Telegraph
The number of patients leaving Britain and flying overseas for medical treatment has trebled as NHS waiting times reach a record high, an investigation by The Telegraph has revealed.
Government data shows the number of people going abroad for healthcare has increased from 48,000 in 2014 to almost 144,000 last year as the health service struggles to cope with demand.
Experts said lengthening waiting times for surgery – particularly hip, knee and cataract operations – and cutbacks to fertility treatment – were fuelling the rise.
NHS waiting times are now the longest they have been for almost a decade, with more than 409,000 people waiting more than 18 weeks for treatment – a rise from 34,000 in 2014.
Patient groups said the figures reflected badly on the NHS.
Joyce Robins, from Patient Concern, said: “It is a desperately sad state of affairs that people who have paid into the NHS all their lives are finding it is not there for them when they need it.
“These are essential operations, but thousands of people are being left in pain and misery – for every person who goes abroad there will be many more left suffering,” she said.
It comes amid a crackdown on “health tourism” within the UK. From Monday, hospital staff will be told to routinely ask patients for utility bills and bank statements in a bid to identify those from overseas who should be paying for NHS treatment.
The new figures from the Office for National Statistics show a 198 per cent per cent rise in trips abroad from the UK for medical reasons between 2014 and 2016.
Such treatments include dentistry and cosmetic surgery, which are offered more cheaply in many Eastern European countries. But health experts said the sharp rise reflected growing numbers of British patients going abroad for medical operations, amid lengthening waits and creeping rationing.
One medical travel website, Medigo, reported a 200 per cent rise in queries about orthopaedic treatment in one year, with rising numbers going to countries such as France and Switzerland for hip and knee operations.
Ugur Samut, it’s chief executive officer, said: “What we are finding is increasing numbers of patients from the UK wanting to avoid the waiting times on the NHS. We are especially finding that in orthopaedics, that is one of the biggest areas.”
Other countries seeing an influx include those which heavily market fertility services, with a ten-fold rise in patients flying from the UK to Spain.
A seven-fold rise was seen in medical journeys to Greece, another major area for IVF, with a doubling in travel to Hungary, where dentistry, fertility services and cosmetic surgery are popular.
Countries such as Switzerland and France, both popular for orthopaedic surgery, saw a six-fold rise and a 60% rise respectively, between 2015 and 2016, the figures show.
Some of the most popular destinations, such as Poland and Romania, might also be explained by increased migration to Britain, with some returning to their native country for medical procedures.
The ONS statistics show 143,996 flights from the UK for medical reasons in 2016, compared with 100,338 in 2015 and 48,190 in 2014.
Under EU reciprocal arrangments, British citizens are entitled to have treatment elsewhere in Europe, with costs covered by the health service, if it is treatment the NHS normally funds.
Mr Samut said around 60% of those seeking treatment abroad were aware of such rights.
Professor Philip Schoettle, professor of orthopedic surgery at the Knee & Hip Institute Munich, said: “We are seeing a lot of patients from the UK. A lot of the time it is people working in finance, whose insurance is international and they don’t want to spend all that time on a waiting list.”
“Germany has very low treatment costs – they can come here and spend their time lying in a luxury suite, with an a la carte menu and physiotherapy twice a day – they are getting first-class treatment and also getting pampered,” he said.
Scarlett McNally, from the Royal College of Surgeons said: “With over 400,000 NHS patients waiting longer than 18 weeks for planned treatment, and an increasing number of clinical commissioning groups restricting access to surgery for certain groups of patients, it is not surprising that some people will look elsewhere for healthcare.
“It is hard to say whether current strains on the NHS explain the rise in patients travelling abroad for surgery. We are aware, however, that more patients are using private healthcare, at least in part because of longer waiting times.”
Prof Adam Balen, chairman of the British Fertility Society, said he was “extremely worried” about the impact of rationing restrictions on couples trying to start a family. NHS access to fertility treatment is now the worst it has been since 2004, with just 12 per cent of areas providing three cycles of IVF.
“There is no doubt that rising numbers are going abroad for fertility treatment – we have seen a steep decline in access to IVF,” said Prof Balen.
A Department of Health spokesman said: “The NHS has recently been independently judged the best healthcare system in the world and is providing safer care to more people than ever before – last year 11.6 million operations were carried out on the NHS, 1.9million more than in 2010.
“There are many reasons why people seek treatment abroad, and the total number who did last year is less than 1 per cent of those who began treatment in the UK.”