Patients having treatment abroad

What responsibility do doctors have to patients seeking follow-up and support after treatment in another country?

Photograph of young woman awaiting airline flight
  • Date: 28 September 2022

THE easing of travel restrictions with the fall in serious Covid-19 cases is welcome news to many but it does present challenges for the NHS when patients seek medical or dental treatment abroad and then present for follow-up back in the UK.

In April this year, an audit by the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons revealed that the number of patients being treated for serious complications following cosmetic surgery abroad in the last four years rose by 44 per cent in 2021. Many of the complications involved systemic infection following abdominoplasty.

Recent reports in the media have also highlighted patients travelling abroad to access transgender care or to have bariatric surgery, which is either currently unavailable in some parts of the UK or has been significantly affected by Covid-19 pressures. Dental patients attending for treatment failure after restorative procedures abroad is also a perennial problem, now made worse by pandemic backlogs.

Increase in MDDUS calls

MDDUS advisers have noted a recent increase in the number of doctors asking what their responsibilities are when patients present seeking follow-up and support after treatment in another country, where there are no specific commissioning arrangements in place.

Specific issues being raised include:

  • An expectation from returning patients and foreign care providers that GPs will provide post-procedure phlebotomy testing. Some GPs have reported that discharge information simply states ‘phlebotomy’, without providing specific test requirements.
  • Requests for GPs to undertake tests that they have not been commissioned to do, particularly relating to procedures where they have no specific knowledge of indicative tests and their frequency.
  • Concerns around ongoing monitoring of a patient’s condition, with no specialist secondary care support available to the primary care GP.
  • Whether a GP can simply signpost patients to the private sector in the UK if the treatment obtained abroad was undertaken privately.
  • Patients presenting with records of treatment abroad in another language and questions over responsibility for translating.

Current NHS advice urges patients to understand the conditions under which they will be treated abroad along with the associated risks, and how aftercare will be provided on returning home. Patients are encouraged to discuss their plans with a doctor in the UK before making any final decisions about travel or medical arrangements – but this can still lead to a feeling of unfairness among health professionals that the NHS may be expected to simply ‘pick up the tab’ for aftercare, or be responsible for providing advice and care in the event of a botched surgery or later complications.

Clinical monitoring

It is important for any clinician who is the initial point of contact for a patient returning from abroad to seek advice from appropriate colleagues before providing follow-up treatment or support, for example gastroenterologists or upper GI surgeons in the case of bariatric surgery.

A key point here is that no clinician is obliged to undertake any care which is contrary to their clinical judgement or beyond their expertise. However, given the potential impact of surgery on a patient's health, a GP (for example) should consider whether specific clinical monitoring should be undertaken. This is similar to the circumstances where patients are obtaining illicit anabolic steroids and have set monitoring that they want to undergo. In this scenario, there may be specific tests that a GP believes are warranted to address patient safety.


Primary care clinicians should also not feel pressurised into prescribing unfamiliar drugs when dealing with the aftercare of patients who have received treatment abroad. Some medications may not be licensed in the UK and such requests should be treated in the same way as recommendations from a UK specialist.

Each prescriber must take responsibility for any prescriptions they issue and be prepared to explain and justify their decisions and actions in prescribing, administering and managing medicines. Doctors should familiarise themselves with current regulatory guidance on this important issue if in any doubt (GMC: Good practice in prescribing and managing medicines and devices).

Translating treatment records

Doctors should be directed by any local arrangements in place for translating treatment records in a foreign language in the absence of any defined policy (and may wish to enquire whether funding is available for such a service in the same way as translation for consultations). For example, NHS England provides guidance for commissioners in relation to interpreting and translation services in primary care.

Patients may be asked to obtain translations, but on occasion a healthcare provider may obtain a translation themselves. It is often the case that a decision is made on a case-by-case basis, taking patient safety and care into account, and being mindful of the quality of the translation that may be provided or obtained. From time to time, it may be felt that it is most appropriate for the patient to be reassessed in the UK. In emergency situations, use of technology such as translation apps may be considered.

Key points

  • Advise patients of the risks of undertaking treatment abroad, considering factors such as language barriers and follow-up care in the UK.
  • When asked to provide follow-up/after care, be careful not to overstep your own expertise, and consider appropriate referrals where necessary.
  • Resist pressure to prescribe drugs/provide treatments that are unlicensed or beyond your expertise.
  • Clinicians should make their own assessment of the need and means of obtaining translations of treatment records provided in a foreign language on the merits of each case, and follow any relevant local guidance.

This page was correct at the time of publication. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.

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