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Medical tourism is enjoying a boom as record NHS waiting lists force UK patients abroad for treatment.
European clinics are reporting significant surges in Brits choosing them for joint surgery, such as hip and knee replacements, which are among the most delayed NHS treatments.
The rise comes as the NHS struggles to cope with backlogs caused by industrial action, winter flu, the pandemic and patients stuck in hospital because a lack of social care.
The current NHS England waiting list for treatment stands at a record 7.21 million and, despite a slight fall in January, it could climb above ten million as services buckle under the strain.
Orthopaedic procedures are top of the waiting lists with NHS data showing 700,888 patients on hold for knee, hip and other operations, the largest total for more than a decade. More than 60,000 patients have been waiting more than a year, compared to 436 on the list in January 2020, according to the British Orthopaedic Association.
Clinics and hospitals across Europe are reporting an influx of patients keen to beat the NHS waiting lists and attracted by fees that are around 50% of UK private health charges.
The in rise UK health tourists: How struggling NHS and sky-high prices to go private are driving Brits aboard for routine surgeries like knee and hip replacement
Turkish healthcare provider Acibadem, which has 24 hospitals, has even opened a contact centre in London to liaise with potential UK patients seeking treatment.
The Nordclinic in Kaunas, Lithuania, saw UK inquiries jump by 53% during 2021 and is expecting to treat more than 2,000 Brits this year.
The clinic forecasts that the number of orthopaedic patients from the UK will double to almost 500 during 2023 with knee and hip replacements the most sought after surgery.
‘This significant and steep increase in patient numbers is an indication of the strain being felt by the NHS,” says Vilius Sketrys, the clinic’s commercial director. “The first thing prospective patients say to us is that they are driven abroad because of the waiting lists.
‘They don’t want to put their lives on hold and spend several years in pain and discomfort before they are able to resume normal life. They tell us of waits of up to four years for joint surgery and other operations although we understand there can be variations depending on the region.
‘But they all feel they have no option but to go private to get on with their lives.”
Hip replacements at many UK private clinics can range from £10,000 to £15,000 but European clinic fees are charging around £7,000 for the operation, flight and hotel costs plus physiotherapy rehabilitation.
Maja Swinder, international patient coordinator, at EuroTreatMed, a medical travel agency with close partnerships with five clinics in Poland, says: “We have noticed a growth in patients from the UK when compared to 2019, especially in the field of orthopaedics. These patients could not wait any longer – for many the pain became unbearable, and they could not sleep, walk their dog or play with grandkids.
‘Travelling abroad for diagnostics such as MRI has also became popular because diagnostics and specialist consultations are now hard to access within the NHS, making it difficult for patients to identify what medical problem they are facing.
‘Some patients also choose us for their next surgery due to the high level of care, comfort and physiotherapy packages that are on offer. For example, we can provide an all-inclusive, 14-day package, with a hospital stay, surgery and high-quality implant, daily physiotherapy, medical care, medication and full board at the price of approximately £7,500.
‘A few days ago, a patient from the UK said that she was quoted £23,500 for private knee replacement surgery involving 2-3 days in the hospital but no physiotherapy or check-ups.’
EuroTreatMed confirmed that one Polish clinic has seen the number of orthopaedic patients from the UK rise by almost 30% from 2019 to 2022.
“Now that travel restrictions are easing, our clients are reporting more people from the UK are looking at options,” says Keith Pollard, a senior consultant at healthcare intelligence analysts LaingBuisson. “They are driven by the cheaper costs and the long NHS waiting lists.
“Reducing the waiting list will be a two to three-year task and that is a powerful driver. I can only see demand increasing as the backlog remains.
“The telling factor is that more people are travelling to Europe for orthopaedic operations where once it was predominantly for cosmetic and dental procedures.”
The European medical tourism market is growing at 18.9% a year and is predicted to be worth almost £13 billion annually by 2026, according to figures from analysts Market Data Forecast.
“The waiting lists have also led to a huge increase of self-pay patients in the UK but you can get the treatment for around 50% of the cost in Europe,” adds Pollard, also editor in chief of the International Medical Travel Journal.
“The main advice is to do your research on the clinics and what support they offer but there are a lot of excellent services and facilities available and places like the Baltic countries have well-established healthcare systems with impressive clinics.”
Private healthcare is also booming in the UK with spikes in people taking out insurance plans or opting for private treatments to beat waiting lists.
NHS England reported its highest bed occupancy in the week ending January 8 with more than 14,000 beds taken up by patients medically fit for discharge but unable to go home because of insufficient social care.
The government’s ambitious catch-up programme delivered 70,000 more elective operations in November compared to the same month pre-pandemic and it expects the NHS to raise elective care activity to 30% higher than pre-pandemic levels by 2024-25 as part of an £8 billion elective care recovery programme.
The Department of Health and Social Care has also introduced a range of measures to tackle the elective surgery backlog including a £1.5 billion fund to increase hospital theatre capacity and deploy technology.
‘I had £7,500 for a hip-replacement in Lithuania instead of waiting three years on NHS’
Lesley Gibbs, 62, from Milton Keynes decided to go to Lithuania for her hip-replacement
Lesley Gibbs opted to travel to Lithuania for treatment when facing a three-year wait for a hip replacement.
The pain from her right hip was a constant source of discomfort and was compromising her ability to perform her job organising critical repairs on the rail network.
Lesley had been on the waiting list for a hip operation but the delays and dysfunction in the NHS hit home when she was returned to the back of waiting list after being diagnosed with anaemia.
“I had already been waiting for almost two years and could barely put any weight on my right foot and the pain was terrible,” says the 62-year-old. “I had a pre-op test and it came back that I was anaemic so they took me off the list.
“I had a lot of other tests but I was just low on iron and after six months I could go back on the list but it would be another two years. I was at the back of the queue again.”
Lesley, from Milton Keynes, who works for Network Rail, researched private options but was quoted £18,000 for UK private clinic hip replacement.
“I couldn’t take the pain anymore and it was really affecting my job so decided I had to go private which was disappointing because I have worked all my life and am a big supporter of the NHS,” she adds.
“I did lots of research and found Nordclinic and their approach was so professional with lots of testimonials from other UK patients.”
Lesley paid £7,500 for her operation, pre-op clinical tests, flights, 4-star hotel accommodation and physiotherapy over the two weeks in February she stayed in Kaunas, the nation’s second largest city, along with her partner Tony Hill.
“There were lots of other people at the clinic, from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, who were all there for the same reason that they had to wait so long for an operation date,” says Lesley, who believes her hip might have degenerated because of her long experience playing darts at a good level.
“I can’t believe it was all done so quickly and efficiently whereas on the NHS I had such a long wait during which time my condition deteriorated to the point where I registered disabled because I couldn’t walk more than 20 yards without excruciating pain.
“I couldn’t sleep so my life was just getting worse and worse. I was on crutches and cried when they said I had another 18 months to two years to wait. Now I’m free from pain, I don’t need crutches and I’m going back to work next week.
“It has been a great success and I would recommend other people look at taking this route rather than waiting and enduring pain and watching their life fall apart.”
‘I paid less than £8,000 for a knee replacement surgery in Poland… half what it would have cost in the UK’
Paul Hutchings, 60, took a trip to Poland for his new knee. He says he would recommend it
Paul Hutchings was not surprised when the persistent pain in his knee meant he needed a replacement joint but he was staggered by the lengthy waiting time for an operation.
“Walking and moving around was painful and uncomfortable and the wear and tear damage to my knee classed me as a high need for a replacement yet I was looking at another 18 months before I could be booked in,” he says.
“My quality of life was badly affected so I had to do something about it. I shopped around and did some research both in the UK and Europe before deciding where to choose.”
Paul, 60, had recently sold the office cleaning and property maintenance business he had built up over almost 40 years and used some of the funds to pay for an operation at a clinic in Zabrze, near Katowice, Poland.
“I went through EuroTreatMed who were very open and helpful and I also spoke to a former patient who was British who had been in pretty much the same position as me in terms of needing an operation but facing a long NHS wait,” adds Paul, from Colchester.
“The cheapest price in the UK was £16,200 but it was less than half that in Poland, including flights, accommodation and daily one-to-one physio for two weeks. I flew out on December 5 and was back home on the 20th.
“The rehab is a slow progression but I’m in no pain now and am able to walk about comfortably. It is disappointing that I couldn’t get the op on the NHS but thankfully I could afford to go private, and I’d recommend the clinic and its service.”
‘I went to Lithuania for hip-replacement surgery… it cost me half what I was quoted in the UK’
Birte Nielsen, 75, also went to Lithuania for hip-replacement surgery, and now ‘feels great’
Kitchen design company founder Birte Nielsen chose Lithuania for her hip operation after being struck down with debilitating sciatica.
The possibility of a hip replacement was first raised in 2019 but no date was fixed and it was on hold throughout the pandemic. But as the pain intensified she was booked in for pre-operative assessment in October last year, which she had to cancel when she contracted COVID.
“I thought it would involve a slight delay but I was told that the next pre-op assessment was four months away in February with any operation another 18 months after that,” says Birte, 75, from London. “I phoned my local hospital every day to get a cancellation but nothing was available and my doctor said he would probably retire before I got the new hip.”
Birte researched former patients from the clinic along with its operational track record and had online consultations about the procedure before travelling to Kaunas in January.
“They organised everything and I felt in safe hands at every stage of the process. I spoke to my surgeon before the operation and knew who he was which I am not sure is the case on the NHS, particularly as they are trying reduce the backlog.
“My surgeon has 15 years’ experience and only does hips – he has done 3,500 hip replacements. To me, it was gold standard clinical care and they were friendly and supportive throughout.
“My pain has gone and I feel great now. I stayed in the Radisson Hotel for two nights and then in a spa facility that had 24 hour medical cover and it cost around half of what was quoted for a private hip replacement in the UK.
“I recognise that not everyone can afford to go private but for me it was money well spent and it means I am no longer on the NHS waiting list.”