British people travelling abroad for medical treatment are often unaware of the potential health and financial consequences - which can be catastrophic, researchers warn.

Every year, at least 63,000 UK residents travel abroad for medical treatment, but many do so without understanding the risks involved. These can include a lack of redress in many countries should things go wrong, and the costs of non-emergency care at home to rectify poor outcomes of treatments received overseas, for which they may be personally liable, says the study.

“We found that many people are embarking on medical tourism with insufficient information and advice, with consequences ranging from troublesome to catastrophic,” said principle investigator Neil Lunt of the University of York, which led the study and also involves the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Royal Holloway University, the University of Birmingham and Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust.

“A sample of patients revealed that while some patients had minor or no health problems following treatment abroad, others faced severe health problems which in some cases were exacerbated by an inability to ensure continuity of care or obtain patient records to address patients’ needs,” Dr Lunt added.

The Internet and information from informal networks of friends and peers play key roles in potential medical tourists’ decision-making, and they often pay more attention to “soft” information than to hard clinical information, the researchers found. They also discovered that there is little effective regulation of information - either hard or soft - online or overseas, and that some individuals are willing to travel for treatment to locations that are not regulated by national laws and guidelines.

The researchers conclude that GPs need support and training to enable them to advise patients not only on the broad consequences of medical tourism, but also the implications of specific forms of treatments which may present particular concerns; these include bariatric surgery and fertility treatment.

They also call for the provision of more information and advice to potential medical tourists, and for this to be packaged and disseminated so that it will reach those who may not consult their GP or a specialist website before travelling.

“The people we interviewed are sometimes far from ‘empowered consumers’ and are failed by the current system. There is a real need for urgent policy action to address the gap in information that exists for people travelling for treatment,” said co-author Dr Johanna Hanefield, of  the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.