"She faced at least a four-year wait on the NHS or a £6000 bill to go private in Britain. Instead, she paid £3700, which included flights."

Robin Millard

Business Day

More Britons opt for surgery and safari in SA 
Robin Millard


SICK of sky-high prices and lengthy waits for operations, growing numbers of Britons are going under the surgeon’s knife overseas in destinations such as SA, India and eastern Europe.

Cheaper operations are enticing more than 10000 Britons a year abroad, some travelling huge distances to factor in some fun in the sun — and still saving on the price of British private sector surgery.

The operations range from hip replacements to heart operations to aesthetic surgery, such as breast enlargements and facelifts.

The British government says waiting times for operations on the free National Health Service (NHS) are coming down. But many patients still face delays of several months to have operations — some even years.

Fears about hospital hygiene, including the risk of contracting antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” like MRSA, are also making patients consider treatment overseas.

Some head further afield for the anonymity of cosmetic surgery and recuperation abroad.

Lorraine Melvill runs Surgeon & Safari in SA, which describes itself as a world leader in the medical tourism industry.

“At the time when I started the business I was very aware that this was a whole new concept,” she says.

“Consumers now have choice. There’s globalisation in all sorts of markets, so why not in medicine?”

Reflective of a booming market, Surgeon & Safari has grown 100% each year since launching in 1999. Patients can meet their surgeons in Britain beforehand, and even add on a safari trip afterwards, with the stress on private patient care rather than cheap alternatives.

Sonja Evans took the plunge, and flew to SA four years ago, having a tummy tuck on her post-pregnancy saggy belly.

She faced at least a four-year wait on the NHS or a £6000 bill to go private in Britain. Instead, she paid £3700, which included flights.

Because of the lack of a language barrier, English-speaking countries such as SA and India are popular.

Med de Tour flew 70 patients to India last year for surgery and holidays, and 55 have gone so far this year.

Their marketing director, Sahar Ali, says their big advantage is that British patients trust Indian doctors because so many work in the NHS.

They quote open-heart surgery from $5000 compared with $25000 in Britain.

Ali says some family doctors are encouraging people to go abroad while other medical professionals are dead set against the idea.

“We feel the NHS should be encouraging us rather than putting up obstacles. We’re easing the burden on them,” she says.

Some detractors warn of botched overseas operations, with British surgeons having to fix the problems.

But there are just as many “horror stories” in Britain as abroad, Ali says. Some of her clients are people whose surgery in Britain went wrong.

The British Association of Plastic Surgeons cautions against “cut-price” cosmetic surgery anywhere.

“If it’s a good quality service it doesn’t matter where you get it. But if costs are cut, then quite often, corners are too,” says spokeswoman Lisa Mangan.

Former association president Chris Khoo says the association is concerned about developments “which reduce surgery to a mere commodity”, and warned against a “consumerist approach”.

“Surgery can go wrong. Cheapest is seldom best. Having an operation to alter the way you look is not the same as buying a cheap sofa, which you can return,” Khoo warns.

However, as more world-class options come within reach, the exodus of aching pensioners and people worried about their looks seems set to grow.


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