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World’s first Health Tourism Show opened in London this weekend – Health Policy Today, 26 October 2008

The world’s first Health Tourism show was held this weekend at London’s Kensington Olympia.  It promised that those keen to combine their heart operation with ‘a dream holiday abroad’ can go along and choose from clinics from over 20 countries, from Malaysia to Portugal and India.

The 2008 Health Tourism Show   offered showcase clinics that offer everything from heart surgery to breast enlargement and dental work.

The official website asks, 'where else can you look into the eyes and shake the hand of the surgeon who may be operating on you in a few months time?’  The exhibition space contained three seminar theatres where those attending can hear talks from potential clinics.  

The Channel 4 website explains, ‘visitors to the exhibition will be able to browse treatments including tummy tuck, liposuction and gastric bypass in Tunisia, IVF in the Ukraine and heart bypass surgery in Malaysia. And all will be offered at cheaper prices than can be found in the UK.’

Dental treatment in one Portuguese clinic (also offering holidays in the Algarve) can provide dental implants priced at 800 euro (£635) each, whereas in the UK ‘they can cost thousands of pounds’.

Others also offer the opportunity to combine their treatment with a dream holiday, enticing prospective patients with tourist attractions and hotel deals. Show director Dr Robert McCaffrey said: "As well as the financial benefits, patients undergoing cosmetic surgery, for example, may not want all their friends and family to know about it and so would prefer to convalesce abroad where no-one can see the swelling."

The organisers of the show say ‘the credit crunch is making people more reluctant to shell out for expensive treatment in the UK and more adventurous about seeking a cheaper option abroad.’

It may seem fantastical that people would travel so far, but experts are predicting that ‘the market for health and medical tourism is set to grow from about 100,000 trips in 2008 to more than 200,000 trips in 2010’.  In mid-August, The Economist also predicted  a huge growth in medical tourism, particularly from Americans  keen to escape expensive treatments in the States.

The Economist notes that until now ‘globe-trotting patients only ever occupied a niche’.  However, ‘what is getting people excited today is the promise of a boom in mass medical tourism, as a much bigger group of middle-class Americans prepares to take the plunge. A report published last month [July 2008] by Deloitte, a consultancy, predicts that the number of Americans travelling abroad for treatment will soar from 750,000 last year to 6m by 2010 and reach 10m by 2012 (see chart). Its authors reckon that this exodus will be worth $21 billion a year to developing countries in four years’ time. Europe’s state-funded systems still give patients every reason to stay at home, but even there, private patients may start to travel

As the Channel 4 report notes, ‘for the surgeons, the show will provide an opportunity to cash in on the growing trend of Britons seeking foreign treatment’.  Like The Economist  Treatment Abroad, an online guide to medical tourism and a sponsor of the event, believes that medical tourism will rocket – this in market that is already worth over £300m in the UK alone.

It is difficult to tell how and whether this market really will boom in the way that has been described.  It will depend upon the changing availability and cost of services within the UK.  Hair transplantation in Turkey might be cheaper than in Britain.

There is an evident political element to this discussion, and the think tank Reform , in their round up this week, draw attention to the  consultation released on October 8th by the Department of Health, outlining its approach to the EC’s proposals for a directive on the application of patient rights across Europe .  

Reform believes that, ‘since many continental countries have found a balance between state entitlement and personal top-ups, the consultation offers an opportunity for the UK to learn important lessons.’

It is not clear whether Reform have a stand at this weekend’s event.