Surgery in the sun 'can prove costly'

Health tourism Daniel Sambraus/SPL
Image caption The hidden cost of health tourism

Each year hundred of thousands of Britons go overseas for medical treatment.

In this week's Scrubbing Up, medico-legal adviser, Dr Emma Cuzner, warns that people considering surgery in the sun should ensure they are fully protected, because they could be left in the lurch if things go wrong.

The idea of travelling to Europe, and further afield, for medical treatment has taken off in recent years.

The organisation Treatment Abroad claims that around 60,000 UK patients travelled abroad in 2009, including 25,800 going for dental treatment and 17,400 planning to have cosmetic surgery.

Surgery in the sun

The phenomenon of health tourism is here to stay it seems, thanks to a combination of factors such as budget flights, lower prices for some private medical treatment compared to the UK, and an increased awareness of what is available.

The problem is that while more patients are aware of what can be done to enhance their appearance, surgery in the sun is not without its pitfalls.

One surgeon recently expressed concern that patients who go abroad may not always receive a proper assessment before their operation, or the aftercare they need.

Newspapers have reported horror stories about the emotional, financial and sometimes physical scars of errors in overseas treatment, including stories about failed breast implants and dodgy dental work.

Plus, there is the risk of returning from the trip with an unwanted souvenir - the Health Protection Agency (HPA) recently issued a warning about a new antibiotic-resistant superbug - NDM-1 - being brought into Britain by patients having surgery in India.

Whether they take place at home or away, all medical procedures carry a degree of risk. However, for patients who have been treated overseas, problems may not even become apparent until they return to the UK.

While those who require emergency treatment on returning home could be seen within the NHS, patients who need further corrective cosmetic work would usually have to pay for this to be carried out privately in the UK or take this up with the clinic where they had the original treatment.

Asking the right questions

That is why it is so important to ask questions before signing on the dotted line with any clinic for private treatment.

For example, do you know what follow-up there will be from the surgeon carrying out the procedure and what will happen if you return to the UK and something goes wrong?

Does he or she speak English? Is there a complaints procedure? And most importantly, if the surgeon acts negligently and you are harmed as a result, will it be possible to obtain compensation to help put things right, as well as for the possible pain and suffering involved?

In the UK, doctors and dentists have an ethical duty to take out adequate insurance or professional indemnity cover so that patients can claim compensation to which they may be entitled.

If negligence is proven, successful claims are usually paid by the NHS Litigation Authority for NHS hospital treatment or by medical defence organisations, such as the MDU, on behalf of GPs and for private treatment.

Outside the UK, however, patients' chances of being able to claim compensation depend on where they are being treated and on what basis.

For example, in Germany and France it is mandatory for doctors to have insurance, whereas in Italy and Estonia it is voluntary.

The European Union (EU) is now looking at ways to secure the rights of patients who seek treatment in another member state and a draft directive on cross-border health care is currently before the European Parliament.

The MDU believes that this needs to include an EU-wide certainty for all patients that if they are negligently harmed, they will receive compensation, either through a state scheme or because doctors and/or the hospital are insured against clinical negligence claims.

Patients must know they will be compensated if they are negligently harmed by treatment in another EU member state.

In the meantime, if you are tempted by the prospects of bigger breasts or a brighter smile at a smaller cost, please do your homework so your bargain treatment does not prove to be a costly mistake.

Have you had surgery overseas? Do tell us your stories

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