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Health Tourists Put Spanish Service Under Strain

Waves of tourists have been coming to Spain's sun-kissed eastern and southern coastline for decades and convalescents among them are connoisseurs of the climate's restorative properties.

But as European integration progresses, more and more health "tourists" and foreign residents buying into the idea of retirement by the sea have been making increasing use of Spain's health facilities -- to the extent that they are now causing a headache for service providers.

EU tourists here, comprising in their majority Britons, Germans and Belgians, are entitled to free healthcare in Spain, with the local authorities picking up the bill.

Popular procedures include hip replacements and coronary bypasses, according to the Confederation of Medical Unions (CESM) in the eastern coastal region of Valencia.

"Everything is easier here, healthcare is universal and free for all," says Manuel Cervera, deputy head of healthcare in the Valencian regional government.

"In some northern European countries patients sometimes have to wait for months on waiting lists for treatment. Here, the average wait is 45 days for a routine operation," Cervera told AFP.

Obtaining a prosthesis "sometimes costs money in other countries, whereas here they are free," he adds.

Under current EU legislation such treatment or surgery for a previously diagnosed ailment requires authorisation from health authorities in the patient's homeland.

To circumvent that rule patients will "often take advantage of a serious instance of a longstanding ailment in order to go to emergency services where they get seen and operated on if necessary," says doctor and CESM spokesman Ricardo Llevata.

"Health tourism is camouflaged behind normal tourism," Llevata charges.

"Many people say they are on holiday whereas in fact they are getting treatment."

A message in English on the walls of the F oyetes health centre at the tourist trap of Benidorm explains to would-be customers: "If you don't speak Spanish come with someone who does. You'll get better service."

At Benidorm-Villajoyosa hospital "health tourism" is a taboo subject.

At the entrance stands Beth Wilson, a 65-year-old English woman, who vouches for the service as being "the quickest in Spain."

Having come over for a varicose veins operation "she obtained an appointment within a few months whereas in England we'd have waited for years," says husband Keith.

But faced with increasing numbers of foreign patients in areas favoured by tourists such as Andalusia in the south and the Balearic Islands, regional authorities and doctors alike are speaking out over what they say are the lack of funds and human resources to treat so many within the national health scheme.

In 2006, "125,000 foreign tourists were treated by the Valencia regional health system," says Cervera, adding that their treatment cost the regional authority 88 million euros (110 million dollars).

He adds that EU cohesion funds destined to aid tourism in the region -- healthcare is administered on a regional basis in decentralised Spain -- "only came to four million euros."

Doctor Llevata noted that "we are desperately short of personnel and funds are insufficient" for what he says are "unforeseen" pressures on local healthcare.

Dorothy Ramirez de la Pecina -- a Finnish translator who speaks nine languages -- has been a key member of staff at the hospital in Benidorm for several years.

"Some old people arrive very ill from their own country," she said.

"They all thank me" for liaising with doctors and for helping to avoid "diagnosis errors."


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