Foreign clinics cash in on sick tourists

A new report by a leading travel insurer claims that thousands of holidaymakers, who receive medical treatment while abroad, are being overcharged. According to Europ Assistance, the company has received a record number of excessively high bills from holidaymakers in countries that include Spain, Greece, Bulgaria and the Dominican Republic. The company says the cost of medical treatment can often be three times what it should be.

Reports of overcharging, as well as allegations of over-diagnosis of minor problems were rife, a spokesman said. Such conduct can cost both insurance companies and uninsured travellers millions of pounds sterling each year.

The company says that tourist health clinics are as reliant as hotels or tour operators on keeping busy. This can result in hospitals and private clinics carrying out unnecessary tests and treatments.

Europ Assistance now plans to conduct more regular audits in the offending countries. Charles Walckenaer, managing director of the company, said that there were fewer worries about state hospitals. “The problems tend to arise when less serious injuries occur and are treated at smaller hospitals, medical centres and clinics,” he said.

Here are some common scams:

• Blood tests for minor sprains or grazes.

• Use of general anaesthetics when unnecessary and without reference to medical history.

• Long-distance transfers to keep a patient within one group of clinics.

• Use of expensive ambulances for transfers in minor cases.

• A doctor’s visit simply to return insurance papers.

• More outpatient visits than necessary.

• Multiple injections for small ailments or conditions such as mosquito bites.

• Additional tests, scans or surgery when symptoms are lessening.

Malcolm Torling, a spokesman for the Association of British Insurers (ABI), said that although an increasing number of insurance companies are having to deal with such cases, it is the uninsured who are most at danger of being overcharged,  poorly treated or both. “People who travel without insurance do not have the benefit of a 24-hour helpline in the event of injury or a medical emergency, and are likely to go straight to the first clinic they find in the local equivalent of the Yellow Pages,” he said.