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Think carefully before helping patients seek overseas treatment

The Medical Defence Union, the UK's largest medical defence organisation, has advised its GP members to be cautious when responding to requests for help from patients who want to travel abroad for medical treatment.

MDU medicolegal adviser Dr Karen Roberts said: "Statistics show that demand for medical treatment outside the UK is rising and doctors may increasingly be asked by patients for advice on treatment or to complete a medical history form on their behalf.

"Of course UK doctors are not responsible for the actual treatment provided overseas but we want them to consider the medicolegal implications of any help they provide before the patient travels or after their return."

The MDU suggests that when patients enquire about overseas treatment, healthcare professionals may initially want to talk to them to ensure they understand what this may entail. For example, they may want to discuss the potential for communication difficulties; the possibility there may be problems in claiming compensation if something goes wrong; and the question of follow-up arrangements after their discharge from the overseas clinic.

Patients need to request a discharge letter from their overseas doctor, and if they need follow-up treatment in the UK, it may not be available on the NHS as quickly as the doctor overseas envisaged.

If a doctor thinks it appropriate to complete a medical history form for a patient, the MDU advises them to follow the GMC's guidance on report writing, including not omitting relevant information and obtaining the patient's consent.

In contrast, if in a doctor's clinical opinion, the journey or procedure is not in the patient's best interests, the MDU advises them to discuss their concerns with the patient who may then want to explore alternatives in the UK, or seek a second opinion. The details of all such conversations with patients should be noted in the clinical records.

Finally, if someone presents with complications following overseas treatment, the MDU reminds doctors that they have the same professional duty to assess the patient and provide clinical care as with any other patient. However, given that the patient may require specialist aftercare, it is important doctors recognise and work within the limits of their competence and also consider referring the patient to a colleague.

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