A guide to visiting the UK for medical tourism purposes

    The idea of travelling for medical purposes is far from a modern phenomenon. The first recorded instance of people travelling for medical treatment dates back thousands of years to when Greek pilgrims would travel  to a province called Epidaurus. Whilst the Europeans from the 16th century onwards would travel to spa towns and seaside resorts for thalassotherapy. In recent years, there’s been a growing trend for private patients from around the world to seek healthcare from the UK.

    What is medical tourism?

    Medical tourism refers to people travelling abroad to obtain medical treatment. In the past this often meant a patient was travelling from a less-developed country seeking healthcare from a developed country. However, today, we are seeing the rise in the number of private health tourists. These are individuals who are travelling from their native country, often with family members, in search of the finest medical expertise.

    Can EU/ EEA citizens access services in the UK?

    Visitors from the EU, Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Switzerland can access healthcare in the UK for free provided they present a valid EHIC or other healthcare documents, such as S2, PRC, or S1 forms. However, EU visitors are only entitled to free NHS treatment for unplanned illnesses. Planned treatment is not covered by the EHIC and visitors will be charged if they do not have valid documentation, but a visa is currently not required.

    However, a bill has yet to be passed into UK law as to the exact status of EU citizens following the UK’s departure from the UK on the 31st December 2020.

    How do non-EU / EEA citizens access medical services in the UK?

    In order to obtain medical treatment in the UK, non-EU and EEA citizens must first be eligible to enter the UK as a visitor. Visitor visas can only be used by people who intend to stay in the UK for less than six months. Applicants have to be able to prove several points in order to demonstrate eligibility:

    • They can afford to support themselves financially whilst they are in the UK
    • The do not intend to work or study whilst in the UK
    • They intend to leave the UK at the end of their visit

    Companies like Withers can help potential private medical tourists with their visa application to ensure they receive the medical treatment they require.

    Medical tourism and COVID-19

    Before the pandemic struck, the medical tourism market was worth up to $87.5 billion (£70 billion) annually, and this is expected to shrink until 2021 as patients avoid unnecessary travel. Whilst healthcare providers begin operating again, it will be on a much smaller scale to limit exposure to possible COVID infection.

    Because the UK government was slow to act there was an added pressure on the healthcare system as it battled with high infection rates. And despite lockdown easing, the virus is still largely uncontained. This will no doubt have long lasting repercussions for the medical tourism industry.

    Many private healthcare tourists who travel to the UK are from the middle east, and whilst many Middle Eastern countries are reopening borders, there are still travel restrictions in place. This will undoubtedly have an impact on any medical treatment being sought.

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