Brits Flying to 3rd World to Escape NIH

The British nationalized medical system is so bad that tens of thousands are flying to the Third World to get better treatment.

Record numbers of Britons are travelling abroad for medical treatment to escape the NHS – with 70,000 patients expected to fly out this year. And by the end of the decade 200,000 “health tourists” will fly as far as Malaysa and South Africa for major surgery to avoid long waiting lists and the rising threat of superbugs, according to a new report.

The first survey of Britons opting for treatment overseas shows that fears of hospital infections and frustration of often waiting months for operations are fuelling the increasing trend. Patients needing major heart surgery, hip operations and cataracts are using the internet to book operations to be carried out thousands of miles away. India is the most popular destination for surgery, followed by Hungary, Turkey, Germany, Malaysia, Poland and Spain. But dozens more countries are attracting health tourists. Research by the Treatment Abroad website shows that Britons have travelled to 112 foreign hospitals, based in 48 countries, to find safe, affordable treatment.

Almost all of those who had received treatment abroad said they would do the same again, with patients pointing out that some hospitals in India had screening policies for the superbug MRSA that have yet to be introduced in this country.

Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary, said the figures were a “terrible indictment” of government policies that were undermining the efforts of NHS staff to provide quality services.

The findings come amid further revelations about the Government’s mishandling of NHS policies, and ahead of official statistics that will embarrass ministers. On Wednesday, figures are expected to show rising numbers of hospital infections. Cases of the superbug Clostridium difficile, which have risen five-fold in the past decade, are expected to increase beyond the 55,000 cases reported last year. On the same day, statistics will show that vast sums have been spent on pay, with GPs’ earnings rising by more than 50 per cent in three years to an average of more than £110,000. New research shows that growing NHS bureaucracy has left nurses with little time to see patients — most spending long periods dealing with paperwork.

Katherine Murphy, of the Patients’ Association, said the health tourism figures reflected shrinking public faith in the Government’s handling of the NHS. “The confidence that the public has in NHS hospitals has been shattered by the growth of hospital infections and this Government’s failure to make a real commitment to tackling it,” she told The Sunday Telegraph. “People are simply frightened of going to NHS hospitals, so I am not surprised the numbers going abroad are increasing so rapidly. “My fear is that most people can’t afford to have private treatment — whether in this country or abroad.”

Low prices in India, where flights, hotels and a heart bypass cost less than half the price charged by British private hospitals, explain its top ranking in the survey by Treatment Abroad, a British website providing information on hospitals overseas. Hungary’s popularity rests on a boom in dentistry, thanks to a shortage of NHS dentists in Britain.

[…]

A Department of Health official said the number of patients seeking treatment abroad was a tiny fraction of the 13 million treated on the NHS each year. Waiting times had fallen. Almost half of patients were treated within 18 weeks of seeing a GP. Most people who had hospital care did not contract infections.

There’s a vicious cycle at work here: Highly trained doctors and nurses can command premium salaries elsewhere, so the NIH is forced to pay higher wages to compete. Given that there’s a limited sum of tax dollars they can collect, though, that means cuts have to be made elsewhere.

That “most” people aren’t getting infections from their hospital visits is of small comfort, indeed. That 13 million stay behind for the treatment they’re paying for with their tax dollars while only 70,000 flee is not necessarily a rousing defense, either.

It should be noted that the British system has long been regarded as among the worst in Western Europe and that others have managed to do nationalized health care without this level of public antipathy. And, of course, all Brits are at least guaranteed some level of care across the board, whereas that’s not the case in the United States.

UPDATE: Ezra Klein has some numbers on Americans traveling abroad to get cheaper care, noting that “there are more Americans — 100,000 — traveling abroad for cosmetic surgery alone than there are Britons seeking any type of services in foreign lands.”

Does NIH provide free plastic surgery?! That would be an odd allocation of public funds, indeed, except in the case of reconstruction after a horribly disfiguring accident or the like. Surely, the Brits are funding boob jobs on the public dole? [Update: Indeed, this more or less seems to be NHS’ policy.]

And, leaving aside for a moment the radically larger population of the United States vis-a-vie the UK, I’d say it’s rather a different thing to fly elsewhere to get a better price vice to escape long lines and risk of infection — and then pay out of pocket for services for which you’ve already paid once via your tax dollars.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. DC Loser says:

    This is also happening in the US, though I don’t know what the numbers are. The WaPo had an article in recent months about American patients booking surgeries in deluxe hospitals in Thailand for a fraction of the cost of US hospitals.

  2. DC Loser says:

    Here’s the link to the WaPo article.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    There’s a vicious cycle at work here: Highly trained doctors and nurses can command premium salaries elsewhere, so the NIH is forced to pay higher wages to compete. Given that there’s a limited sum of tax dollars they can collect, though, that means cuts have to be made elsewhere.

    The “elsewhere” is mostly the United States and another way of looking at this phenomenon is that the U. S. system is driving up healthcare costs worldwide.

  4. Grewgills says:

    It would be interesting to see a full comparison of people seeking medical treatment and medication abroad between all the OECD nations. Does anyone know if this or something similar has been done.

    Here is a European medical tourism site. Apparently it is a growth industry in some EU countries.

  5. Andy says:

    I’m glad that the USandA system is so great that people never go abroad for healthcare and especially never go to Canada for prescription drugs.

  6. DC Loser says:

    Don’t need to reference Europe concerning medical tourism. We have our own sites in the USA

  7. tom p says:

    So what?

    Americans have been heading to Mexico for at least a decade (that I personally know of).

  8. Bithead says:

    Ezra Klein has some numbers on Americans traveling abroad to get cheaper care, noting that “there are more Americans — 100,000 — traveling abroad for cosmetic surgery alone than there are Britons seeking any type of services in foreign lands.”

    Forgive me, I remain unimpressed as ever with Klein.

    First, there are more Americans overall than Brits anymore.So that there are more Americans looking outside for healthcare is a matter of raw numbers. If he were to suggest that a higher PERCENTAGE sought services outside the system…. Of course at that point his entire argument disintegrates.

    Secondly, we are a country that imports far more than it sends out… we as a matter of routine look offshore for cheaper everything. Why are offshore healthcare services to be any different, or for that matter why would it alone be viewed as a negative?

  9. Tano says:

    “Of course at that point his entire argument disintegrates.”

    Why does it disintegrate? Presumably, if you believe that, it is because you have some numbers handy that show the percentage of Americans doing this is lower. Care to share?

    “Why are offshore healthcare services to be any different, or for that matter why would it alone be viewed as a negative?’

    Huh? If citizens of a country with socialized medicine do it, then it is a negative mark against their health care system, but if Americans do it, it says nothing about ours?

  10. anjin-san says:

    From WebMD:

    Dismayed by high surgical costs in the U.S., increasing numbers of American patients are packing their bags to have necessary surgery performed in countries such as India, Thailand, and Singapore.

    “This is not what is sometimes snootily referred to as ‘medical tourism,’ in which people go abroad for elective plastic surgery,” says Mark D. Smith, MD, MBA, president and chief executive officer of the California HealthCare Foundation in Oakland.

    Today’s “medical refugees,” the term Smith uses in an article published in the Oct. 19 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine, are going to foreign countries for lifesaving procedures such as coronary bypass surgery and heart valve replacement, and also life-enhancing procedures such as hip and knee replacementknee replacement.

    “People are desperate,” Smith tells WebMD. “This illustrates the growing unaffordability of the U.S. health care system, even to people who are by no means indigent.”

    It’s no suprise the right is always focused on problems overseas and is afraid to look in the mirror, the reflection is just too ugly…