We all hope it won't happen. All we want is a relaxing break away from home, but last year a record number of UK nationals fell ill abroad and needed medical assistance. According to the Association of British Insurers, there was on average more than 7,000 cases a week and insurers paid out a total of £274 million towards the cost of medical treatment for UK travellers.
The British Heart Foundation says that around 700,000 people are living with heart failure in the UK today and every year around 146,000 people suffer a heart attack, some of which will be while on holiday...
So what would it be like if you suffered a heart attack on holiday in Spain?
Well, firstly, someone will hopefully call a doctor or an ambulance and a trip to the nearest hospital with appropriate facilities will be swiftly arranged. They will seek to diagnose, treat and manage your condition and while that is going on, one of the first questions asked of you or your travelling companion will be, What's the name of your Travel Insurer and do you have insurance documents? Having the correct papers to hand will ensure there's no delay but in the event of no information being available, the hospital staff will be contacting all UK Travel Insurance Medical Assistance providers asking them to search their databases for your name and address to find a valid policy.
Once established that cover is in place, the hospital will ask the insurer to guarantee all medical costs. But before the insurer confirms this, they will check all the detail of the policy is valid and correct and whether you have declared any medical conditions. They will, with your consent, contact your home GP to ensure the Spanish doctors have all the necessary background information regarding your health and they will check that you have been accurate and complete in your medical declaration when you bought the policy. Assuming all is in order, costs will be guaranteed and you will receive whatever medical treatment is required.
Spanish speaking medical professionals working for your medical assistance company will be in close contact with the treating doctors to ensure that you are getting the right treatment to get you fit to travel home as soon as you are able. Treatment may continue in Spain until you are fully fit to fly home yourself, or an air ambulance or a medical escort could transfer you back to a UK hospital. This will be a clinical decision made in conjunction with the assistance company doctors and the treating doctors in Spain. In cases like this, the patient is NOT expected to pay out to the hospital and claim back later, all hospital and air ambulance costs are taken care of directly by the insurance company. While it is important to take your European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) with you, state run hospitals are few and far between in Spain, which means medical expenses will often be similar, if not higher, than in private hospitals in the UK. Once you are fit and well and back in the UK there may be other costs you will want to claim for under the policy and the final bill for the insurer could be many tens of thousands of pounds, less any small excess on the policy.
So what would happen if you didn't have travel insurance or had not declared your medical conditions correctly?
Well either you have no contract with an insurer, so you are on your own, or you were not providing all the facts when you entered into the contract, so the insurance company may not guarantee medical costs and you could again be on your own. Early on, the hospital will require some form of guarantee that they are going to be paid before continuing with treatment. They will do their best to keep you comfortable and out of acute danger, but they are less likely to perform expensive procedures or treatment until payment can be secured. You may urgently contact the British Consulate for help but the consulate will only assist in contacting people in the UK on your behalf; they will not pay for, or even guarantee medical costs. Ultimately, whatever treatment is necessary to keep you alive will be carried out, but with a medical expenses bill rising daily. In the worse case, you could have built up debts and not be allowed to leave the country until payment is received by the hospital. Usually your relatives usually find enough between them, even if it means having to take out a bank loan or even sell your house to pay off the debt on your return home. It's a harsh lesson to learn, so make sure you have comprehensive travel insurance in place before travelling.
Taking out a travel policy which meets your specific needs is an important purchase decision but one which many people simply can't be bothered to look at very closely. If you were buying a new car or even a new TV, most would at least read the brochure and perhaps speak to a few people who may know about such things, yet when it comes to insurance the purchase is often based on price alone. If everyone knew about what could happen, perhaps they'd take a closer look at exactly what they're getting before opting for the cheapest.