Many people are familiar with the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC), which entitles EU citizens to medical care during temporary stays in EU countries. But not many know that it is also possible to plan medical treatments in other EU states and in certain cases be reimbursed. Even when they know, people are reluctant to seize the opportunity, reveals a survey by ANEC, a European consumers organisation.
Of the over 1,600 people who participated in the research, 37% said they had received unplanned medical care in another EU country over the past 5 years. The most common causes were accidents and emergencies (50.9%), need of medical consultations (43.2%), pharmacy (27.3%), diagnostic and screening services like x-ray or blood tests (25.3%), and dental care (6.6%).
About two thirds (65.8%) were treated by public health providers. Overall, most patients were satisfied, but some 30% reported problems, especially with regard to language and communication (13.5%), long waiting times (6.9%), inadequate facilities (4.7%) or, after the treatment, difficulties travelling back and disputes about payment (3.7% each).
EU citizens can also travel to other EU countries to access medical treatments and pay for themselves. Although each EU country has different rules (some require prior authorization, for instance) the EU directive on cross-border healthcare gives them common rights to information and advice, plus reimbursement under certain conditions.
A report from the European parliament says that “health tourism” is increasing and now represents about 5% of the sector revenues (EUR 34 billion). Data, however, include wellness and spas, so it is difficult to know how many people travel specifically for medical treatment.
Only 4% of respondents in the ANEC research said they had travelled abroad for this purpose. They did it mostly to receive dental care, obstetrician services, orthopaedic, aesthetic and cosmetic surgery, ophthalmic services and rehabilitation from illness or injury.
The most common reasons to seek solutions in other EU countries were the willingness to be treated more quickly (28%), at a cheaper cost (22%), for a better quality (20%), or to get treatment not available in the home country or from a renowned specialist (14% each).
Almost two thirds (61.7%) of those who pursued this route used a private healthcare provider. Less than half (47%) knew that they could apply to be reimbursed for certain treatments, 40.4% said they paid privately, 34.1% received full or partial reimbursement from their national health insurer and 6.4% were funded by a private insurance.
Also in this case people reported problems related to the process, rather than the quality of care. The study mentions the case of Panagiotis, a 74-year-old who travelled from Greece to Sweden for cancer treatment. Communication was in English, a common language, but he had to sign a legal document in Swedish, which was summarised to him in oral English. “This made me feel uncomfortable when I was in a vulnerable position,” he said.
The study found that only 25% of patients are aware of the existence of National Contact Points (NCPs), which were set up in EU countries to provide advice about cross-border healthcare. ANEC says there should be more information, so that patients can choose the best provider and know rules at the outset, but also be aware on how to complain if necessary.
“The ageing population of the EU, and growing prevalence of chronic diseases, is putting increasing strain on national healthcare systems, and increasing demand for affordable, timely and quality healthcare. In this context, the ability to choose from a wider range of service providers, in other Member States, offers clear potential benefits for patients,” says the ANEC report.
For some, however, being treated away from home will never be an option. The main reasons highlighted in the survey were concerns about redress if things went wrong (57%), being satisfied with healthcare in the home country (37%), not being able to afford the associated travel costs (33%) or fearing lower standards and generally lacking confidence in the quality of healthcare of another country (47%).
Claudia Delpero © all rights reserved.
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