Comment: Medical tourism is the elephant in the private medical insurance room

Medical tourism is the elephant in the PMI room

I am going to write about my summer holidays, an opening sentence I have not used since primary school. But it's relevant.

I cycled from Vienna to Budapest with my spouse and four others. It's quite easy – about 65 kms a day for six days and a van carries your bags from hotel to hotel. This may even qualify for PruHealth points.

On day two, we hit the Hungarian town of Mosonmagyarovar – a mouthful which means “town of seventeen bridges” in Hungarian. While some bridges are small, a metre across a stream, its smart shops, restaurants and many banks make it by far the most prosperous town around.

Why? Think “bridge” and “mouthful” but not as in the previous paragraph. Mosonmagyarovar has well over 100 dentists – it owes its wealth to tooth tourism. High cost dental procedures such as implants, crowns, reconstructions and pure cosmetic work are charged at 20 to 25% of the mainstream UK price.

Even after fares, and hotels (a bargain – beer is £1 for half a litre), patients are thousands of pounds better off. Hungarian dentists work on Saturday and Sunday so clients can have a long weekend with tooth attention thrown in. Many clinics carry out initial investigation work in the UK.

Mosonmagyarovar is just one of several eastern European towns to benefit from tooth travel. Obviously, Hungary or Poland or Latvia or Estonia or Lithuania is not much use if you have a raging toothache or just want a basic check-up. But that's the nature of medical tourism – it is intended for planned procedures, not health emergencies.

Medical tourism – not just dental travel – is the elephant in the private medical insurance room. It's there. It should not be ignored but it is because who in the present private medicine set-up would want to embrace it, let alone promote it?

Unless there is some new plan on the drawing board, no one in private medical cover seems to want to know. And there is an even less than zero chance of getting positive feedback from private medical providers such as hospitals.

The standard lines coming from both groups are as follows. They say that there is no way of guaranteeing standards; that no one would surely want to be hospitalised a long way from home; it is not convenient to travel huge distances; and what happens to follow-up work when needed as a matter of course or because the original is botched.

There is some truth in some of these criticisms. But European Union medical staff are trained to similar standards to those applying in the UK. A private sixth form college near my home is advertising links with the medical school at the University of Debrecen (in eastern Hungary) where students can receive training (in English) at a fraction of the UK medical school price. Medical tourists are not seeking cutting edge brain or pioneering open heart surgery – these tend to be left to the NHS anyway.

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