Health Tourism Placing Growing Burden on NHS

While the NHS provides care that is “free at the point of delivery,” a growing number of health tourists are placing a strain on the system; foreign nationals need to have been a resident here for at least a year in order to access free medical care, but checks on this are not always carried out by hospitals. In 2002-03 the Department of Health was left with £2million unpaid bills, which had risen to £11.5million by the end of the financial year in 2012. Despite efforts over the last decade to limit health tourism, cheap air travel, shorter waiting times for treatment and heavy investment within the NHS has fuelled the problem.

Health tourism adding to growing burden on NHS
Health tourism adding to growing burden on NHS

Scale of the problem


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Although £11.5million only accounts for 0.01% of the health service’s budget of £104billion, it has been suggested by the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, that this is a significant underestimate of the costs, which are believed to be greater than £200million. Health tourists who are able to cover up the fact that they don’t qualify for free treatment and the millions of pounds hospitals are still trying to reclaim are thought to be the reasons for the huge gap between the reported figures and the true cost.

Ease of access to care

In many cases all that is required for free treatment is an NHS number, which is not difficult to obtain; unlike elsewhere in Europe there is no need to provide details of financial contributions or a health card that identifies eligibility for treatment. As clinical duties are clearly distinct from cost management within the NHS, many doctors feel uncomfortable questioning patients when they are unwell. As a result overseas visitor staff are left with the task instead, but even if they identify foreign nationals not entitled to free treatment, it can be difficult for them to influence the decisions of senior medical staff. While Jeremy Hunt has outlined plans for stricter rules in terms of registering with a GP surgery to help manage health tourism, this does not solve the problem of foreign nationals who arrive at hospitals requiring urgent treatment.

Home grown health tourism

However, it isn’t just those from abroad who are burdening the NHS. Britons who have lived abroad for at least six months are not entitled to access free medical care on visits back home, but many older adults who have left the country after retirement maintain their registration with their GP or register temporarily with a surgery if they stay with relatives in order to obtain free treatment.