India has emerged the most popular destination for British patients wanting to undergo surgery for ailments that would otherwise take months to treat in the National Health Service (NHS).
In the first major survey of medical tourism, figures show that British citizens have travelled to 112 hospitals in 48 countries for safe, quick and affordable treatment. NHS hospitals in Britain face long waiting lists and hygiene challenged by superbugs.
The survey, conducted by the Treatment Abroad website, shows this year over 70,000 British citizens will travel abroad for medical treatment. The figure is expected to rise to 200,000 by the end of the decade.
Several websites based in India and Britain act as a single-window facility to arrange treatment for British nationals. Many of them return home, singing praises to the quality of treatment and post-operative care they received in India.
Almost all of those who had received treatment abroad said they would do the same again, with patients pointing out that some hospitals in India had screening policies for the superbug MRSA that have yet to be introduced in this country.
The survey, reported in the Sunday Telegraph, revealed that besides India, other popular destinations are Malaysia, South Africa, Hungary, Turkey, Poland and Spain. India's popularity is due to the fact that flights, hotels and a heart bypass operation there cost less than half the price charged by British private hospitals.
Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary, said the figures were a "terrible indictment" of government policies that were undermining the efforts of the NHS staff to provide quality services.
He said: "Healthcare is an area where Britain could be a world beater because we have some of the best research and best clinicians. If people don't trust the health service, then that is a terrible indictment of this government, which has turned the NHS into a nationalised bureaucracy, instead of something able to focus on what patients want."
Katherine Murphy of the Patients' Association said that the health tourism figures reflected shrinking public faith in the government's handling of the NHS. She said: "The confidence that the public has in NHS hospitals has been shattered by the growth of hospital infections and this government's failure to make a real commitment to tackling it.
"People are simply frightened of going to NHS hospitals, so I am not surprised the numbers going abroad are increasing so rapidly. My fear is that most people can't afford to have private treatment - whether in this country or abroad."
The British Medical Association advised people to be careful when considering treatment abroad, highlighting the dangers of flying soon after surgery, which can cause complications.
A BMA spokesman said: "Travelling can place a great deal of stress on the body. Patients travelling abroad for surgery should consider their fitness to fly and get an understanding of an appropriate convalescence period before attempting to return home."
A Department of Health official said the number of patients seeking treatment abroad was a tiny fraction of the 13 million treated on the NHS each year, and that waiting times had fallen. Most people who had hospital care did not contract infections, the official added.