The days of visiting your local GP every few months or when you feel a bit under the weather are over. Healthcare as an industry is changing faster than ever before, leaping forward with new methodologies both at the point of delivery and at the point of access.

Doctors routinely offer telephone consultations. Digital prescriptions and other online health records are de rigueur. And we can all keep an eye on our own personal health with the help of handheld devices from the iPhone to the FitBit. Healthcare is becoming a joint partnership between doctor and patient. Your doctor has the responsibility to care for you, while you are empowered to take action on your own health needs.

But it's not all good news. Despite our technological leaps and a recent £9 million award to breakthrough digital health technologies1, there are still gaps in the UK's healthcare provision. A 2018 report from the Trade Union Congress found that the UK's mental health services are failing to meet a rising demand2, with only one mental health doctor available for every 253 patients.

The English Longitudinal Study of Ageing found that ageism is a rising problem tied to health, and 25% of people over the age of 50 believed they had been unfairly treated in hospitals3. The study also showed that older patients were less likely to receive potentially curative cancer therapies or be included in trials for drugs treating heart disease.

And one of the UK's most long-standing healthcare issues centres around NHS waiting times. The NHS  has an 18-week target for treatment following a referral, but between March 2013 and November 2018, the number of patients waiting for longer than 18 weeks rose from 153,000 to 528,0004. Earlier this year, A&E waiting time targets hit their worst level since NHS records began in 2004, with just 84.4% of patients treated, admitted or discharged within four hours5. In 2018, the wait time for NHS cancer treatments were declared to be the "worst on record" 6.

The reasons behind the NHS's struggle with wait times are complex and varied. They include a decade's worth of chronic underfunding and a massive staffing shortage, with more than 100,000 staff vacancies currently advertised in England7. But they add up to the same thing: British people are beginning to look for other options to take care of their own health.

The self-paying patient and medical travel

Companies are cutting back on private medical insurance (PMI) as an employee benefit8. But there has also been an increase in patients willing to pay for their own treatment, which now accounts for around 25% of private UK hospitals' income in London8.

However, not everyone can afford care in the UK's private hospital network. In the gap between private medical care and long waiting times with the NHS, a growing number of Brits are heading overseas for medical treatment, as the BBC recently reported. For many patients, medical travel offers the solution for everything from routine dental procedures to more complex treatment.

In 2018, we found that queries from UK residents about medical travel jumped 53%, with a particular interest in dentistry, gynaecology, ophthalmology and orthopaedics.

At Medigo, we offer priority access to international healthcare for all. This gives us a bird's eye view of the changing healthcare industry and a personal relationship with patients taking healthcare into their own hands. Our high quality international provider network provides a safe space within which patients can travel. We've noticed growing enthusiasm for the ability to take charge of your own health and travel for the right, affordable, and timely treatment. In 2018, queries from UK residents about medical travel jumped 53%. There was a particular interest in dentistry, gynaecology, ophthalmology and orthopaedics.

Amanda Wells, who was interviewed by the BBC, was one of Medigo's patients. Amanda travelled from her home in Scotland to Poland last year to remove a bunion from her foot, after her GP estimated that it would take nine months for the NHS to provide the operation. The Polish clinic was able to perform the procedure for £3,000, compared to the £6,000 quote she received in the UK from a private surgeon.

"The facilities were excellent in Poland," Amanda told the BBC. "The surgeon was fantastic and I saw him for three follow-ups before I went home."

We see stories like this every day. The rising trend of paying for your own medical care, both abroad and at home in the UK, shows real determination to find the right medical treatment, no matter the access barriers. Our technology today around global connectivity has grown to empower these patients. But it's not a perfect system. Patients often struggle to find and book appointments on their own. While procedures like dentistry and orthopaedics may be affordable, higher cost options for speedy and cutting edge oncology treatment in Germany, for example, is still out of reach for most people.

The Brits willing to pay for their own medical treatment are pioneers in a new land of healthcare treatment. They are individuals taking it upon themselves to shape the healthcare delivery they want. It's now up to the system to catch up with them.

The opportunity for employers to look after self-payers

For all of the dramatic changes in our healthcare system over the last decade, one thing can't be denied: it tends to move slowly. Right now, our healthcare systems are failing those patients who fall in the gap between the NHS and PMI. These patients often live and work outside of London. While there are growing attempts to address these problems, as in the plans for a £65 million specialist hospital with private care in Birmingham9, many of these regional shortfalls will take years to address.

In the meantime, medical travel can make a world of difference for patients like these. After all, a trip from Birmingham to Hungary is often much cheaper than the same trip to London, even before you take into account the cost of UK private dentistry versus Hungary's. But it remains difficult to navigate such options without an expert's help. And medical travel certainly doesn't make the cutting edge technologies and treatments that haven't made it to the NHS yet – like oncology treatment in Germany and Switzerland – any more affordable for the average person. Self-payers are looking for affordable, timely treatment options from trusted medical providers, and a service to help them access these treatments.

Employers who recognise the disparity between state provision and self-pay have the ability to make a very real difference in their employees' lives.

While we wait for the healthcare system to deliver healthcare when it is needed and at the right price, there are opportunities here for employers. Employees are looking for healthcare benefits as an attraction that will draw and keep them in their companies. Healthcare benefits have the potential to comprehensively meet the needs of an age-diverse workforce are unprecedented. Employers can recognise the disparity between state provision and self-pay and make a very real difference in their employees' lives. Now, employers are hearing the needs of their self-paying workforce, and some are rising to meet those needs.

At Medigo, we provide access to our validated and curated network. We offer all of the ease and affordability of medical travel with none of the complexity, plus the certainty that you are working with a high quality network. Beyond that, Medigo's GLOBALCARE and GLOBALCOVER put employees and employers in a position to control their healthcare needs. Both products offer an unmitigated level of service and access to quality healthcare. As well as this, GLOBALCOVER is a treatment-based critical illness product, which pays for and arranges treatment for cancer, heart surgery, neurosurgery, and transplants at the best hospitals across the world: putting both waiting times and issues of expense firmly to rest.

The rise of the self-payer demonstrates that medical travel and privately paid insurance are not just viable options, but proven methods through which many people are already accessing healthcare treatment. What we, as employers, as intermediaries, and as healthcare access providers, need to do is answer the call. We need to provide the healthcare solutions people are looking for. The demand is there, and we have the answer; we just need to bring them together with a focus on delivering the right treatment, at the right time, for the right price.

Everyone should have access to the medical care they need. Medigo provides a range of solutions for global access to quality healthcare. For more information or to learn about Medigo's healthcare benefit offering, contact bruce.eaton@medigo.com

References
  1. "Mental health services are failing to meet rising demand, new TUC report reveals", TUC, Oct. 2018
  2. "£9m awarded to breakthrough digital health technologies", UK Government, Mar. 2019
  3. "Over 50s treated like 'second class citizens' in shops and hospitals", The Telegraph, Apr. 2019
  4. "Expect a rise in patients suing NHS over long waits, watchdog warns", The Guardian, Mar. 2019
  5. "A&E hospital waiting times hit worst level since NHS records began, figures show", The Independent, Feb. 2019
  6. "NHS cancer treatment wait statistics 'set to be worst on record'", The Guardian, Nov. 2018
  7. "NHS waiting times: A&E four-hour target set to be scrapped, plans reveal", The Independent, Mar. 2019
  8. "Cancer care becomes biggest earner for London's private hospitals", FT, Feb. 2019
  9. "New £65million specialist hospital facility planned for Birmingham", HCA Healthcare UK, July 2017

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