Health tourism booming in Belgium
In 2006, scores of people have headed to Belgium - for everything from hip surgery to fertility treatment. Martin Banks reports on the country's boom in 'health tourism'.
The trip pays off for many.
Faced with a prolonged wait on the National Health Service in the UK, Howard (54), from London, headed for Belgium where he successfully underwent an operation within days of arriving.
Howard, a father-of-three, is typical of a growing number of tourists from around Europe who are flocking to Belgium for treatment.
It is not just NHS waiting lists that are forcing British patients across the North Sea. The high cost of private care in the UK means that treatment in Belgium can be a real bargain, even with travel costs added on.
Of all the treatments available for foreigners through Belgium's 'surgery supermarket', cosmetic and cardio thoracic surgery are two of the hottest items on the shelves and attract increasing numbers of customers from all over Europe.
Prices in these areas are the cheapest in the EU and the standard of hospitals and operations is second to none.
*quote1*According to Jan Eyckmans, a spokesman for the Belgian health ministry, there are no adverse implications for the Belgian health sector either.
"Accepting foreign patients does not cause us any problems as waiting lists or capacity is concerned," he said.
"Through agreements between our health insurance and foreign insurances, specialised and often urgent care can be offered to those patients in need of it," said Eyckmans.
Every year, about 20,000 foreign patients receive treatment in Belgian hospitals.
Just over 60 per cent of these so-called "health tourists" come from the Netherlands and 17 per cent from France.
The UK and Germany each account for 4 percent, Italy 5 percent and Luxembourg 6 percent.
Eyckmans said that, traditionally, liver, heart, lung and kidney transplants are among the most popular types of treatment which entice foreign patients to Belgium.
Other visitors include heart surgery patients and newborn babies, and those seeking treatment for obesity and surgery to the stomach and digestive system.
Low-cost airlines and Internet advertising, which connects patients and doctors around the world, have also encouraged this sort of travel.
Roy Cronin (29), an Irish rock musician, flew to Brussels for just two days to get a tooth replaced. He travelled with a friend, who came to have four root canals, a procedure that can require a three-month wait in Ireland.
Roy explained, "I was in a lot of pain and needed treatment as soon as possible so was more than happy to come to Belgium for it."
Hilary Heason, from Nottinghamshire in the UK, paid EUR 4,442 euros for lap-band surgery in Belgium compared with the EUR 13,300 it would have cost her in the UK.
Hilary, who underwent the surgery to help her tackle her obesity, said that in the UK, "this type of surgery is seen as a reluctant procedure, taking several years and a lot of misery and embarrassment. I have the resources to be independent and chose not to put myself through that. It was money well spent."
Hilary would certainly recommend anyone coming to Belgium for medical treatment. "I found the hospital staff compassionate and I was not the object of pity as I had often been in the UK health system," she said.
A spokesman for the British Cardiac Patients Association says that Belgium is already the first choice for British heart patients.
"We know of a man who had been waiting for months for a triple bypass in the UK. So he went to Belgium where the operation was carried out immediately and superbly," she said.
Under European Community law, any EU citizen suffering so-called "undue delays" in receiving treatment in their home country can apply to have the operation in another member state.
*quote2*In the past, the travel costs involved and the fact that patients are usually away from th