Implications for the NHS of inward and outward medical tourism: A policy and economic analysis using literature review and mixed-methods approaches

N. Lunt, R. Smith, R. Mannion, S. Green, M. Exworthy, J. Hanefeld, D. Horsfall, L. Machin, H. King

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report



The study examined the implications of inward and outward flows of private patients for the NHS across a range of specialties and services.


To generate a comprehensive documentary review; to better understand information, marketing and advertising practices; examine the magnitude and economic and health-related consequences of travel; understand decision-making frames and assessments of risk; understand treatment experience; elicit the perspectives of key stakeholder groups; and map out medical tourism development within the UK.

Design and participants

The study integrated policy analysis, desk-based work, economic analysis to estimate preliminary costs, savings and NHS revenue, and treatment case studies. The case studies involved synthesising data sources around bariatric, fertility, cosmetic, dental and diaspora examples. Overall, we drew on a mixed-methods approach of qualitative and quantitative data collection. The study was underpinned by a systematic overview and a legal and policy review. In-depth interviews were carried out with those representing professional associations, those with clinical interests and representative bodies (n = 16); businesses and employees within medical tourism (n = 18); NHS managers (n = 23); and overseas providers. We spoke to outward medical travellers (46 people across four treatment case studies: bariatric, fertility, dental and cosmetic) and also 31 individuals from UK-resident Somali and Gujarati populations.


The study found that the past decade has seen an increase in both inward and outward medical travel. Europe is both a key source of travellers to the UK and a destination for UK residents who travel for medical treatment. Inward travel often involves either expatriates or people from nations with historic ties to the UK. The economic implications of medical tourism for the NHS are not uniform. The medical tourism industry is almost entirely unregulated and this has potential risks for those travelling out of the UK. Existing information regarding medical tourism is variable and there is no authoritative and trustworthy single source of information. Those who travel for treatment are a heterogeneous group, with people of all ages spread across a range of sociodemographic groups. Medical tourists do not appear to inform their decision-making with hard information and consequently often do not consider all risks. They make use of extensive informal networks such as treatment-based or cultural groups. Motivations to travel are in line with the findings of other studies. Notably, cost is never a sole motivator and often not the primary motivation for seeking treatment abroad.


One major limitation of the study was the abandonment of a survey of medical tourists. We sought to avoid an extremely small survey, which offers no real insight. Instead we redirected our resources to a deeper analysis of qualitative interviews, which proved remarkably fruitful. In a similar vein, the economic analysis proved more difficult and time consuming than anticipated. Data were incomplete and this inhibited the modelling of some important elements.


In 2010 at least 63,000 residents of the UK travelled abroad for medical treatment and at least 52,000 residents of foreign countries travelled to the UK for treatment. Inward referral and flows of international patients are shaped by clinical networks and longstanding relationships that are fostered between clinicians within sender countries and their NHS counterparts. Our research demonstrated a range of different models that providers market and by which patients travel to receive treatment. There are clearly legal uncertainties at the interface of these and clinical provision. Patients are now travelling to further or ‘new’ markets in medical tourism. Future research should: seek to better understand the medium- and long-term health and social outcomes of treatment for those who travel from the UK for medical treatment; generate more robust data that better capture the size and flows of medical travel; seek to better understand inward flows of medical travellers; gather a greater level of information on patients, including their origins, procedures and outcomes, to allow for the development of better economic costing; explore further the issues of clinical relationships and networks; and consider the importance of the NHS brand.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherNational Institute for Health Research: Health Services and Delivery Research
Commissioning bodyNational Institute for Health Research
Number of pages262
Publication statusPublished - 4 Feb 2014

Publication series

NameHealth Services and Delivery Research
PublisherNational Institute for Heath Research
ISSN (Electronic)2050-4349

Cite this