'Medical Tourism' - the phenomenon of people travelling abroad to access medical treatment - has received increasing attention in academic and popular media. This paper reports findings from a study examining effect of inbound and outbound medical tourism on the UK NHS, by estimating volume of medical tourism and associated costs and benefits. A mixed methods study it includes analysis of the UK International Passenger Survey (IPS); interviews with 77 returning UK medical tourists, 63 policymakers, NHS managers and medical tourism industry actors policymakers, and a review of published literature. These informed costing of three types of treatments for which patients commonly travel abroad: fertility treatment, cosmetic and bariatric surgery. Costing of inbound tourism relied on data obtained through 28 Freedom-of-Information requests to NHS Foundation Trusts. Findings demonstrate that contrary to some popular media reports, far from being a net importer of patients, the UK is now a clear net exporter of medical travellers. In 2010, an estimated 63,000 UK residents travelled for treatment, while around 52,000 patients sought treatment in the UK. Inbound medical tourists treated as private patients within NHS facilities may be especially profitable when compared to UK private patients, yielding close to a quarter of revenue from only 7% of volume in the data examined. Costs arise where patients travel abroad and return with complications. Analysis also indicates possible savings especially in future health care and social costs averted. These are likely to be specific to procedures and conditions treated. UK medical tourism is a growing phenomenon that presents risks and opportunities to the NHS. To fully understand its implications and guide policy on issues such as NHS global activities and patient safety will require investment in further research and monitoring. Results point to likely impact of medical tourism in other universal public health systems.
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