A common misunderstanding with travel insurance cover relates to medical expenses; many holidaymakers do not realise that the majority of travel insurance policies will not offer cover for medical treatment at private hospitals, they only cover the cost of treatment in a public or state hospital.

But why is this? Surely private care is better and, if so, shouldn’t travel insurance be offering to pay for this?

It is important to firstly understand that your travel insurance is there to assist and protect you should the worst happen when on holiday – and what many do not realise is insurers have some very valid reasons for advising their customers to use a public facility and steer clear of private hospitals.

As with the NHS, public or state hospitals abroad are regulated by the State. The facilities and standards of care is inspected regularly and staff are employed based on qualifications and experience, where as in a private hospital ‘checks’ are only carried out when a complaint has been made and more worryingly, doctors may not be as qualified as they portray – this is very common in Mediterranean Holiday Resorts, but is known to occur worldwide.

Medical treatment abroad is expensive in any hospital, but private hospitals are renowned for over-dosing, over-examining and over-charging holidaymakers. Some private hospitals will demand an upfront payment or a credit card/passport before even considering a medical assessment – regardless of how injured or ill you are. Refusal to hand over the money or personal documents could mean the difference between life or death and this is the harsh reality many holidaymakers have had to face.

Regardless of your condition, if you do not agree to pay the upfront bill to the private hospital your medication will be discontinued or surgery halted. In more than one case critically ill holidaymakers have been held hostage in the clinic until they are able to arrange payment.

So, yes, the corridors may be clean and the bedding may match but the attitude of staff and, more worryingly, the lack of regulations is not going to provide the care you need should something go wrong. Advising a referral to have treatment in a public hospital is not your travel insurer trying to get out of paying your claim, it is simply to ensure you receive the best possible care.

A Real Case...

A five-year-old was taken to a private hospital in a popular Spanish resort after complaining of stomach pain. The private hospital diagnosed gastroenteritis and declared the child would be fine in a few days. Tifgroup, his insurer, advised the child should be transferred to a children’s unit attached to a university teaching hospital but the private clinic criticised the quality of care at the public hospital and the parents made the decision for the five-year-old to stay put. The next morning, the child’s condition had deteriorated and a doctor from the university teaching hospital was called. The child was immediately transferred and underwent life changing surgery to remove almost his entire bowel. The diagnosis; an obstructed superior mesenteric artery, the sole blood supply to the bowel. If the child had been transferred the previous night as suggested, they may have been able to bypass the blocked artery.

Another downside of private hospitals is they don’t always have the specialist knowledge that may be required, whereas this would always be available at a public hospital.

A Real Case...

A women in her 60s arrived at a private clinic in Spain after injuring her ankle, an A&E Doctor examined her x-ray; neither a consultant, trauma surgeon or radiologist was on the premises. She was diagnosed with a minor hairline fracture and told the leg would need to be plastered. Again, tifgroup recommended she was transferred immediately to the local university hospital and after some delay from the private clinic she was transferred. The trauma surgeon at the public hospital reviewed the x-rays and immediately noticed a further, more serious, fracture and ligament damage which required surgery. If left untreated the injury could have had long-term consequences on the woman’s ankle.

The horror stories mount up in their thousands, but with a stigma against public or state hospitals abroad not being as good as the NHS it is difficult for travel insurers to be heard. It may help to know, according to the World Health Organisation, the healthcare in the UK ranks at 18 with France coming in 1st and Spain, Italy and Greece all sat ahead of us. Yes, the hospitals may operate differently and not look up too much but in terms of care the figures speak from themselves.

At this point it is fair to mention that not all private facilities will operate in this way. The exception to the above is when the public and private sectors are both funded in the same way or the country does not have a public health service.

Your travel insurers emergency medical team will always advise the best hospital for your needs and although you may disagree, your health comes miles above the cost of the claim. Just remember, choosing to ignore your travel insurers advice could be the difference between life or death.

With this in mind, we repeat our previous question – is private care really better? We know we will certainly be sticking to public or states hospitals in the future.

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