Medical tourism: What to know about travel insurance for treatments abroad

Written by
Felicity Hannah
Finances expert
28 October 2021
6 min read
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Travel insurance is always essential when you head overseas but for medical procedures you need something more specialist 

Choosing whether or not to opt for any medical procedure is never something you take lightly; it’s an important health decision. 

And that’s especially true if it’s an elective operation - a treatment you’re choosing to have rather than being told you need by a medical professional. 

But private treatments in the UK can be pricey and so, every year, thousands of Brits head overseas for what is sometimes called ‘medical tourism’. 

They might have booked anything from cheaper cosmetic surgery, such as a so-called ‘tummy tuck’ or implants, to cosmetic dental work and laser eye surgery. 

Some even choose to travel for more affordable fertility treatment. 

Is it definitely cheaper? 

When you’re shopping for insurance, the golden rule is always look for the best price for what you need, not just the cheapest price. 

And this rule is even more important when comparing medical treatments abroad. 

The Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority says it can be cheaper to go abroad for IVF, but you must be careful not to be caught out by “unexpected extras” where the price quoted hasn’t included expensive drugs or other fees. 

And the NHS says that cosmetic surgery can be cheaper abroad, but it warns anyone considering it to be very careful when assessing the standards and qualification of the surgeon or other medical professional. 

Plus, you’ll need to factor in the cost of hotels and flights, and maybe the cost of bringing a friend or relative if you want help getting home again. 

It’s a really good idea to research any treatment and any clinic very thoroughly before you book. After all, no medical procedure is without risks and you need to be sure you are in safe hands. 

But a key additional way to protect yourself is with insurance. 

Your elective treatment will not be covered by any standard travel insurance policy so don’t assume you can rely on your normal cover. 

Is there special insurance for medical tourism? 

Yes. Travel insurance is always essential but insurance for medical travel is even more urgent. 

Do not risk a treatment abroad without appropriate cover. Your elective treatment will not be covered by any standard travel insurance policy, so don’t assume you can rely on your normal cover. 

In fact, if you're travelling abroad to have a procedure, that can actually invalidate a standard travel insurance policy, meaning you would lose protection for everything – even lost items or cancellations! 

So, you need a specialist policy designed for your medical procedure. You should expect to have to provide medical information about your health and the treatment you’re planning to undergo. 

You also need to compare different medical travel insurance policies carefully as the level of protection can really vary. 

Never assume everything you want is included in any insurance policy. You must read the small print and understand what you’re buying. 

There may well be exclusions in terms of covering lengthy aftercare overseas, or the cost of repatriation. 

There may be terms that invalidate your cover if, say, you drink alcohol following your surgery – something you might be tempted to do if you've planned a holiday abroad around your treatment. 

And some medical tourism insurance policies may only provide the usual travel insurance protections such as lost luggage or stolen items, and not actually provide any protection if things go wrong with the procedure. 

Be very clear about what you’re buying and read the policy documents before you pay. 

Remember, as with any standard travel insurance policy, this kind of cover is very unlikely to include travel to any country which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have advised against visiting. 

This kind of policy may also exclude any pre-existing medical conditions, so make sure you fully understand exactly what protection you're buying if you have additional needs. 

What about if things go wrong? 

Make sure your policy includes protection for complications. 

The best policies will include additional cover for if things go wrong and you unexpectedly need a longer hospital stay. 

Bear in mind that some policies only include financing a longer stay if you have a life-threatening complication. 

They may exclude any more standard time spent as an in-patient, so there is a risk that if you have a longer and more complicated recovery that isn’t life-threatening, you could have to pay for that yourself. 

Good medical tourism policies will cover the cost of returning within a fixed period of time if you need to have further medically necessary corrective treatment. 

If you’re travelling with a companion to help care for you, make sure they are listed on the policy too. That way, if something went wrong and your policy paid for your longer stay, your companion would also be covered. 

As with any normal travel insurance policy, you should book it as soon as you start to plan your visit. 

Getting ahead 

Just as with any normal travel insurance policy, you should book it as soon as you start to plan your visit. 

Don’t leave it until the night before you travel because then you don’t get the full cover – by taking it out immediately, you can be confident of having protection in place if anything disrupts your trip in advance. 

Will it cost too much? 

The price of your policy may vary depending on the risk, so depending on the policy you may well pay more for invasive surgery than for a smaller so-called ‘tweakment’. 

You may also find that the country you are travelling to affects the price. 

But remember, even if insurance for overseas medical treatment costs more than standard travel insurance, it isn’t something you can skip on. 

There are risks with any medical procedure and there can be increased risks when you undertake them abroad. You can’t afford to be without specialist insurance so, if the price is too high, you should wait until you can meet the cost. 

Travelling for surgery or even a more minor procedure without the right insurance can mean a finance-shattering bill if you end up with complications. 

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Don’t forget that while you may think that this article is brilliant, it is intended for information purposes only and should not be mistaken for financial advice or recommendations.