Expat Focus International Healthcare Update July 2020

COVID-19 continues to dominate healthcare news across the globe. Although many countries are now beginning to emerge from lockdown, there is widespread concern around the impacts of a second wave. As a result, some countries are already taking precautions. For example, the Spanish authorities have suggested a voluntary (for now) lockdown in Barcelona.The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has attracted attention in the press for the amount of medical aid it has provided to other countries. It has recently assisted over one million healthcare workers across the world, by contributing PPE, medical and food aid. The Minister of State for International Cooperation, Reem bint Ibrahim Al Hashemy, said:

"Since its very founding, the UAE has pursued bonds of friendly cooperation and solidarity with other countries, believing that nations must set aside their differences in favour of unity and the greater good of humankind. Today’s milestone of assisting one million healthcare workers affirms the UAE’s commitment to extending a hand of cooperation to the world, regardless of the religion, race, or ideology of recipients."

Many countries have been the recipients of this humanitarian effort, including the USA and the UK. Around 80% of World Health Organisation-procured supplies have come via the Dubai humanitarian hub, and the country has joined in the international attempt to find a vaccine for COVID-19.

As if we haven’t already got enough to deal with, the new swine flu, G4 EA H1N1, has roused fears that it might be the next pandemic. However, Thai virologist, Dr Yong Poovorawan, at Chulalongkorn University, has said that there is not currently a high risk of this happening and that people should not panic. Nonetheless, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal suggests that people who work in the industry should be monitored, and measures to control the virus should be implemented, just in case.

As you may have read in this month’s Brexit update, the EHIC card will no longer be valid for UK expats and travellers who are below pension age. However, if you are claiming a pension, you will still be able to use your EHIC or an S1 form. Also, if you are a UK student starting a course in the EU before the end of 2020, your EHIC will remain valid until the end of your course. Everyone else will need to take out comprehensive health and/or travel insurance, if they are not covered already by their host nation’s state healthcare system.

It is worthwhile keeping yourself informed about healthcare in your host nation. For example, if you live in the Czech Republic, then it’s worth noting that the 1976 agreement between the Czech Republic and the UK may be binned as a result of Brexit. The Czechs say that they have been spending more on healthcare for UK citizens resident in the country than the UK has been spending on Czechs in Britain (although the UK does not ask for compensation from Czech national healthcare funds).

The UK government says that it is “particularly important” to get travel insurance with the right cover if you have a pre-existing medical condition.

The UK still has reciprocal health insurance deals with some non-EU countries, including Australia and New Zealand. Therefore, if you fall ill when visiting these nations, your healthcare will be low cost or free.

COVID-19 has obviously had a serious impact on medical tourism. Thailand has been gearing up to allow tourists back into the country for non-coronavirus related medical reasons, but further outbreaks of the virus have been causing uncertainty, and this definitely isn’t the best time for some types of medical tourism, such as cosmetic dentistry procedures.

Spare some sympathy for Malaysia, who designated 2020 as the Year of Healthcare Travel. According to the British Medical Journal, they predicted a 33% rise to two million visitors coming into the country for medical reasons. This no longer sounds likely. The Southeast Asian private medical sector is now facing a significant decline until at least 2021.

Malaysia in particular has been investing wisely in medical tourism, adapting its infrastructure and focusing on the whole package, including flights and accommodation. Costs there can be up to 40% lower than in Singapore, for instance, and it remains to be seen how much you might be able to save over the next year or so, as facilities compete to attract customers back after the pandemic. So, although 2020 might not be an ideal time to travel for medical purposes, you might want to consider your opportunities next year. For example, you may want to look at treatments for orthopaedics, cardiology, IVF, neurology, or oncology.

The British Medical Journal reports that the US remains the largest international market for medical tourism (it says that it accounts for around 36% of the global spend), but Asia Pacific nations have recorded the fastest growth in this sector. You are likely to see a new draw in medical tourist advertising: COVID-safe zones.

Because Southeast Asia had an early encounter with SARS, testing and tracing mechanisms, plus swift containment, have meant that infection rates have been lower than elsewhere. Also, these nations may well have a faster recovery from the effects of the pandemic than some countries in the West.

Facilities are wary of opening up too quickly to patients from coronavirus hotspots, for obvious reasons. They say that they are investing heavily in PPE, as well as taking other measures, and are currently honouring only existing appointments for relatively urgent cases (cancer rather than cosmetics). Their governments, meanwhile, are looking to open travel corridors between ‘safe’ places, and the countries they include may not be Western nations.

If you are thinking of undergoing a medical procedure abroad and have a provider in mind, then check their social media. Some clinics are running Facebook Live events, for instance, to provide information to potential clients. And don’t forget to run everything by your private health insurance company. You do not want COVID-19 to create difficulties with regard to the validity of your health cover.

Keep in touch with your provider, especially if you’re already travelling, and make sure that you’re up-to-date with any changes to your healthcare cover during these uncertain and constantly changing times.