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More and more European resorts are directing tourists in need of medical treatment to private hospitals in exchange for a referral fee. With most travel insurers unable to cover private medical care, it’s leaving travel-lovers facing huge medical bills. 

What’s going on?

Towards the end of the summer, the Daily Mail reported that foreign hotels are being paid to send tourists to costly private hospitals for treatment. Hotels and resorts in Spain, Greece, Cyprus and Turkey were singled out for consistently choosing to direct their customers to private hospitals rather than public, state-funded facilities.

But what’s wrong with that? You have travel insurance. Your medical expenses should be covered no matter where you are treated, right? Unfortunately not. Most travel insurers do not cover the cost of private medical care. That leaves tourists in the risky position of having to foot the bill for thousands of pounds worth of treatment themselves.

Kate Huet is managing director of International Travel & Healthcare Ltd in the UK. In an edition of the International Travel Insurance Journal, she was quoted as saying that she had heard stories of customers being hassled once home from their holiday by UK-based debt collection agencies who seem to specialise in recovering money for private medical facilities in high volume tourist resorts. There was another instance of a private hospital fabricating a call to the customer’s insurer and stating that the insurer had refused to cover their medical expenses and that they would have to bear the cost themselves.

It’s an incredibly complex issue. So let’s try to get to the bottom of it.

Why is this happening?

Those against the practice of sending tourists to private medical facilities criticise hotels and resorts for the referral fee they receive from private hospitals for each of their customers that are treated there. Essentially these hotels are being paid to send injured or sick tourists to expensive medical facilities.

But as always there are two sides to every story.

The resorts argue that public hospitals in tourist hotspots are often understaffed, underfunded and busy - especially during peak season. Contracts with private hospitals are often in place to provide hotel chains with a broad range of services - from first aid training programmes to food safety advice. The hoteliers’ case is that they want to ensure their customers receive the best medical care possible - with the option of callouts for non-urgent treatment, which state-funded healthcare often doesn’t provide.

We told you it was complicated.

But let’s pause for a second.

Because you may be wondering where your European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) fits in to all this.

What does the EHIC entitle you to?

The EHIC is a free card that entitles you to a certain level of free medical care in all EU countries plus Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. Essentially it allows you the same level of free medical care as the local residents of those countries receive. In many cases that means all treatment is free - like the NHS - though in some countries residents have to pay a percentage of state-funded medical care. That’s where travel insurance comes in to make up the deficit, so you’re not left out of pocket if you need medical attention.

The key thing to note, however, is that neither the EHIC nor most travel insurance policies cover the costs of private medical care.

So where do you stand?

As a travel insurer, we believe in clarity

Here at World First - like most other travel insurers - we do not cover the costs of private medical care. We are very honest about that and inform every customer at the point of sale when they take out their policy: if you require medical attention, go to a state-funded (public) medical facility. In exceptional circumstances - such as when emergency treatment is necessary and private treatment is the only option - we will pay private medical costs. But this is decided on a case-by-case basis.

Still with us? Good.

Why we believe public facilities are better than private

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office provides government-endorsed travel advice for each country. You can take a look here. For most EU countries they advise going to public medical facilities if you need treatment while you’re on holiday. The general standard of care is very good across the EU.

Here’s why we believe it’s best to go to a public, rather than private hospital for treatment:

  • they tend to have an array of specialist consultants available around the clock
  • they are government-regulated and clinicians must work only in the field in which they are qualified - this is not officially regulated in private hospitals
  • in the International Travel Insurance Journal there are accounts of private hospitals administering treatments and/or running tests that are not necessary - over-treating patients

Top tips to avoid incurring private medical bills

  • Knowledge is power. Read your policy wording and key facts document carefully to make sure you know exactly what you’re covered for - and what you’re not. If in doubt call your travel insurer.
  • Save a copy of your policy documents on your phone or in the cloud in case you need to check your position on medical treatment while you’re away.
  • If you have an EHIC, make sure it’s valid. If you don’t have an EHIC, get one. It’s free.
  • If you are taken to hospital, find out as soon as possible if your hospital is public or private.
  • Call your travel insurer as soon as possible to discuss your case. Most travel insurers have a 24-hour emergency contact number. Make sure it’s saved in your phone. Ours is: +44 (0) 203 829 6745.

What does the future hold?

It’s unclear how the industry will react to the growing trend for foreign resorts to send tourists to private hospitals. Representatives from the Private Healthcare Association of Spain recently attended a meeting with the UK’s Travel Insurance Claims Committee (TICC) and the Association of British Insurers (ABI) to discuss their concerns about UK travel insurers’ reluctance to cover private medical bills. The issues are being investigated. But for now it’s best to heed your travel insurer’s advice and stay away from private medical care unless you have no other option.

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