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Going Abroad For Surgery? Does Travel Insurance Provide Cover?

Apr 30, 2008
Let's face it; a root canal is no fun whether you have it here in the UK or in a clinic in a sunny country abroad. What are the options if treatment isn't available on the NHS or the wait is too long? Medical Tourism is a term that basically means combining a holiday with a surgical procedure. Sounds ideal, doesn't it? If you need pain-relieving surgery or cosmetic maintenance work why not combine it with a holiday in a nice location?

Thousands of British people have been spending millions jetting off abroad for a quick nip-and-tuck, nose job, hip or knee replacement or dental work - among other procedures. Many choose to follow up the treatment with rehabilitation at a spa. Other treatments commonly sought abroad include heart surgery, hernia repairs, orthopaedic procedures, cataract removal, hair transplants, infertility treatments and chemotherapy

The reason for the success of this new industry is no mystery. Waiting times for operations under the National Health Service, or the unavailability of some treatments under the NHS, leave no choice for many but to suffer or pay up. Ongoing private health insurance in the U.K. is simply not affordable for the average person.

Those seeking surgery abroad have a very wide choice of countries to choose from, and they are increasing all the time. They range from Latvia to India and even South Africa (combine surgery with a safari!). India, in particular, has risen to meet the demand for quality care and is popular among the British. For low-cost dental treatment many choose Croatia, Hungary, Latvia, Spain or Thailand

This new booming industry has spawned the growth of medical tourism companies which specialize in putting together complete packages for patients. They take care of all the details - which may otherwise be too daunting for most people to tackle alone. The packages vary but will usually include flights, transfers, hotels, meals, surgical procedures and post-operative care at the closest resort area, if required.

Older people are the ones most likely to search abroad for treatment for serious or life-threatening conditions. Another sector of society travelling abroad for treatments are the baby-boomers and young professionals with spare cash to burn. Going abroad for procedures like liposuction, breast augmentation, face lifts and Botox treatments offers a degree of privacy. If they return to work looking younger and rejuvenated after their 'holiday' no one need know the real reason!

It all sounds very tempting, so what's the catch? There are downsides to all this, of course. Many fear travelling so far from home and away from the support of family and friends. Some fear they will be exposed to tropical diseases like Malaria or even a nasty case of Delhi belly. What if something should go wrong or there are post-operative complications? It would be daunting, expensive and probably impossible to fight for compensation in a foreign court. Then there's the problem of obtaining travel insurance...

For many people though, the risks are far outweighed by the desperate need for an alternative to years of living in pain while they wait for NHS treatment. It's a good idea to shop around first and find out whether having the procedure done at a private clinic in the U.K. is feasible rather than risk travelling so far from home. However, in most cases the costs abroad are significantly lower - due, in part, to the cheaper labour and the lower cost of malpractice insurance.

Before taking the plunge, be aware that travel insurance policies do not normally cover claims for those who travel abroad for the purpose of obtaining medical treatment. Most policies will contain a general exclusion to this effect, and the entire policy could be invalidated - meaning that even claims for lost luggage would be denied! The same applies to the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC).

As far as insurers are concerned, those seeking medical treatment abroad pose a significant risk as they are obviously already ill, or have a medical problem. If a patient is determined to pursue treatment abroad, we would advise that anyone travelling with that person should obtain their own separate travel insurance policy. Although travel insurers should always ask about pre-existing conditions, they may not specifically ask whether treatment is being sought abroad. It could, therefore, be incorrectly presumed by the customer that they would be covered even though they have not volunteered the real reason for the trip. Travellers should also be wary of travel insurance policies offered from abroad as they may not provide adequate cover, and there would be no access to consumer protection in the event of a problem!

Anyone considering medical or dental treatment abroad should do plenty of research first. There is a wealth of information to be found online, as well as forums where patients can share their experiences and leave comments and reviews. At the time of writing, travel insurers have not jumped to fill the gap in this potentially lucrative market, but maybe that will change in the future. It might be worth leaving a note for the tooth fairy and see what happens.
About the Author
Jean Andrews is a freelance writer living in the UK. She regularly contributes articles for TIA Ltd who have lots of information about travel insurance cover.
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