About 50,000 UK residents seek private health treatment abroad each year and the numbers are increasing, although no one knows by how much.

Estimates from industry experts suggest 50% travel for cosmetic surgery, 25% for dentistry and the remainder for elective surgery like knee, hip, hernia and varicose vein operations or fertility treatment.

Private Healthcare UK, a leading online information source, handles about 1,500 enquiries a month. Managing director Keith Pollard said: “We’re not involved in putting together packages. We have no contractual relationship with patients.”

Belgium is the most popular destination for elective surgery as it is easy to reach and reasonably priced, said Pollard. Hungary tops the list of dentistry destinations and various places, including Spain, the Czech Republic, Brazil, Argentina and South Africa, compete for cosmetic surgery clients.

Pollard said the number of overseas providers tops 300. However, UK companies are constrained by the risk of being sued by an unhappy patient, and clients face insurance problems as most policies do not cover medical treatment.

Athena World Travel, an online agency in Leicester, moved into medical tourism after spotting the demand. Marketing manager Iona Douglas said: “It started with a woman whose facelift went wrong. She couldn’t afford to have it rectified in the UK and asked us for help. We don’t advise people, we give a contact number and arrange travel and transfers.”

Silverbird Travel is UK general sales agent for Royal Orchid Hotels and has two pages in its Discover Thailand brochure offering health check-ups. Most involve general medical examinations, but there are dental checks and a heart-care programme. Managing director Jerry Quinn said: “Clients take out their own insurance and we need proof of this.”

However, Federation of Tour Operators director general Andy Cooper said there could be problems. “Suggesting a doctor or a clinic may not be different legally from offering a travel excursion and companies could be held liable.” If companies face legal action from a client whose treatment has gone wrong, he said, disclaimers are useless as a defence.

Watch out

The UK’s major travel groups have steered clear of medical tourism, according to FTO director general Andy Cooper. “If you  promote a destination for medical trips and something goes wrong you would be on the hook,” he said.

Thomas Cook was surprised to find earlier this year that a company in India was using its name to promote medical trips. “We had not agreed to it and had it withdrawn,” a spokeswoman said. “We would not endorse anything like this.”

A spokesman for the Association of Independent Tour Operators said it was unaware of members offering medical trips abroad.

Growing pains

India’s medical tourism industry is predicted to be worth £1.2 billion by 2012.

Someone requiring a heart bypass operation, who might face a six-month wait on the NHS or a £19,000 bill for private treatment, could fly to Bangalore and pay £4,800, including flights.

But critics see health tourism as diverting resources from public healthcare. India has four-and-half times fewer doctors per head of population than the UK, with 600,000 deaths each year just from diarrhoea.

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