New English patients fly abroad to go under the knife
Sick of sky-high prices and lengthy waits for operations, growing numbers of Britons are going under the surgeon’s knife overseas, in destinations like South Africa, India and Eastern Europe.
Cheaper operations are enticing more than 10Â 000 Britons per year abroad, some travelling huge distances to factor in some fun in the sun—and still saving on the price of British private sector surgery.
They range from hip replacements to heart operations to aesthetic surgery, such as breast enlargements and facelifts. The British government says waiting times for operations on the free National Health Service (NHS) are coming down.
But many patients still face delays of several months to have their operations—some even years.
Fears about hospital hygiene, including the risk of contracting antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” like Methicillan-Resistant Staphylococcus (MRSA), are also making patients consider treatment overseas.
“I was in excruciating pain and all I wanted to do was get rid of it,” said Angela Goldsborough, who flew to Poland for a hip replacement and four weeks’ physiotherapy.
Wary of the NHS, she found her treatment was available in Krakow for Â£6Â 000—less than a third of the private cost in Britain.
“I was out in Poland within two weeks,” the 74-year-old from west London told Agence France-Presse (AFP). “The treatment was fantastic and you could have eaten your food off the hospital floor.”
Barbara Thurgood and Company has been arranging private orthopaedic treatment in Poland for over a decade. Thurgood said it was a logical move to create fixed-price packages offering patients speedy diagnoses and treatment at a cheaper cost than in Britain.
She told AFP that many clients were wealthy professionals capitalising on the option to go abroad—including doctors. Some head further afield for the anonymity of cosmetic surgery and recuperation abroad.
Lorraine Melvill runs Surgeon and Safari in South Africa, which describes itself as a world leader in the medical-tourism industry.
“At the time when I started the business I was very aware that this was a whole new concept,” she told AFP. “Consumers now have choice. There’s globalisation in all sorts of markets, so why not in medicine?”
Reflective of a booming market, Surgeon and Safari has grown 100% each year since launching in 1999.
Patients can meet their surgeons in Britain beforehand, and even add on a safari trip afterwards, with the stress on private patient care rather than a cheap alternative.
Sonja Evans (40) took the plunge and flew to South Africa four years ago, having a tummy tuck on her post-pregnancy saggy belly. She faced at least a four-year wait on the NHS or a Â£6Â 000 bill to go private in Britain.
Instead she paid Â£3Â 700, including flights.
“I felt terrified before going out there, purely on the grounds of vanity, but it was the best thing I ever did,” the personal assistant told AFP. “It transformed me. I went from being really shy to brimming with self-confidence.
“I would have otherwise waited on the NHS and got more depressed about how I looked,” she said.
Because of the lack of a language barrier, English-speaking countries like South Africa and India are popular.
Med de Tour flew 70 patients to India last year for surgery and holidays and 55 have gone so far this year. Their marketing director, Sahar Ali, said their big advantage was that British patients trust Indian doctors because so many work in the NHS.
They quoted open-heart surgery from $5Â 000, compared with $25Â 000 in Britain.
Ali said some family doctors were encouraging people to head abroad while others were set against the idea. “We feel the NHS should be encouraging us rather than putting up obstacles: we’re easing the burden on them,” she told AFP.
Some detractors warn of botched overseas operations, with British surgeons having to fix the problems.
But there are just as many “horror stories” in Britain as abroad, Ali said, adding that some of her clients were people whose surgery in Britain had gone wrong.
The British Association of Plastic Surgeons (Baps) cautions against “cut-price” cosmetic surgery anywhere.
“If it’s a good quality service it doesn’t matter where you get it. But if costs are cut, then quite often, corners are too,” spokesperson Lisa Mangan said.
Former Baps president Chris Khoo said the association was concerned about developments “which reduce surgery to a mere commodity” and warned against a “consumerist approach”.
“Surgery can go wrong: cheapest is seldom best. Having an operation to alter the way you look is not the same as buying a cheap sofa, which you can return,” he warned.
However, as more world-class options come within reach, the exodus of aching pensioners and people worried about their looks seems set to grow.—AFP