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1 in 5 UK holidaymakers have needed medical treatment abroad

1st August 2016 Print

Over 1 in 5 (22%) UK holidaymakers have needed to seek medical treatment whilst abroad, new research from travel insurance has found. However, a worryingly similar number (23%) don’t always make sure they have travel insurance for their holiday.

In the study of over 1400 UK adults, less than half (49%) of those who needed treatment agreed that they received good quality care and 14% said they couldn’t get any treatment until they could prove they had travel insurance with medical cover. 7% of respondents said that they received an unexpectedly high medical bill following their treatment.

Nearly a quarter (23%) of the holidaymakers who needed treatment in Europe said that they didn’t have to pay anything for their medical care as it was covered by their European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). However, although the EHIC it is a very useful card to take with you on a European trip, the majority of UK holidaymakers overestimate the benefits it can provide. 70% believe the EHIC entitles them to free emergency medical care anywhere in Europe. In fact the benefits provided by the EHIC vary from country to country across Europe.

The EHIC and Brexit

In research carried out before the EU referendum, 23% of UK holidaymakers felt worried that a Brexit would mean they would lose valuable medical protection provided by the European Health Insurance Card.

The EHIC is an initiative of the European Economic Area (EEA) rather than the European Union (EU) so whether or not UK citizens will keep this reciprocal benefit depends on how deep the Brexit goes. Regardless, nothing will change until the Article 50 negotiations to separate the UK from the EU are concluded, which could be two years or more.

Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein are members of the EEA but not the EU and all three accept the EHIC so the UK could possibly take this approach. Switzerland is neither a member of the EU or the EEA but still accepts the EHIC as part of the single market.

Also, the UK already has reciprocal deals with a number of countries, including Australia, Israel and Russia, under which visitors can receive free urgent treatment. So even if it was no longer part of the EHIC initiative, it might agree similar deals with EU countries

Alex Edwards, travel insurance spokesperson at, commented: “One of the main reasons why holidaymakers arrange travel insurance is for the medical expenses cover. Having an accident or falling seriously ill abroad can quickly lead to a substantial medical bill if you don’t have insurance, especially in developed countries where medical costs can be extremely high. Those people who think ‘It’ll never happen to me’ may be surprised to learn that more than 1 in 5 UK holidaymakers have needed to get medical treatment abroad so really it can happen to anyone.

“It’s one thing to receive a big bill after your treatment, but what’s more frightening is the prospect of having emergency treatment delayed or refused until you, or your family, can prove how it’s going to be paid for, something 14% of our survey respondents experienced. We’re very accustomed in the UK to receiving our emergency medical care whenever we need it and without question. But in some places, if you can’t prove you have the means to cover the bill, you may not receive the care you need or your treatment may be delayed.

“It’s great to see that many savvy Brits have used their EHIC to get emergency free medical treatment in Europe. However, there’s still considerable confusion about the benefit it actually provides and a now a question mark over its future following Brexit. Holidaymakers should view it as complementing the medical cover provided by a decent travel insurance policy rather than as an alternative to it. And of course the EHIC has no benefit at all outside of the European Economic Area (plus Switzerland) which means in countries like Turkey, Albania and Montenegro you’re totally dependent on your travel insurance to cover your medical bill or you’ll be paying for your treatment yourself.”

“When you consider that a family travel insurance policy for a two week trip to Europe providing up to £5m of medical expenses cover can cost around the same as a bottle of high end sun cream, it’s really not worth the risk of travelling without it.”