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British holidaymakers risk big medical bills because of confusion over EHIC benefits

08 May 2013

Nearly half of British holidaymakers believe the EHIC gives them FREE emergency medical care anywhere in Europe and nearly 1 in 10 believe cardholders get FREE medical repatriation.

The European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) is a must have for travellers to Europe. But new research commissioned by Gocompare.com amongst British holidaymakers reveals that there's considerable confusion as to what benefits the EHIC does and does not provide. As a result many believe having an EHIC makes travel insurance unnecessary while holidaying in Europe and risk being landed with big holiday medical bills should they have an illness or accident abroad.

  • Nearly half (47%) of British holidaymakers believe that an EHIC entitles them to free emergency medical care anywhere in Europe.
  • 6% believe an EHIC entitles them to free medical care anywhere in the world
  • 9% believe that having an EHIC means they can be flown back to the UK from Europe by air ambulance for free if seriously ill or injured.
  • 18% of adult British holidaymakers have never heard of a European Health Insurance Card or EHIC
  • 6% believe that having an EHIC means they don't need travel insurance when travelling in Europe


18% of British holidaymakers have never heard of an EHIC or a European Health Insurance Card but 1 in 10 (8%) UK travellers have successfully used an EHIC to get free or reduced cost medical treatment whilst in Europe. However 3% have tried to use an EHIC abroad only for it to be rejected by the clinic or hospital they attended.

The cost for medical treatment abroad can be eye-wateringly high and if the treatment isn't covered by an EHIC the financial impact can be huge. These are some real life examples:

  • One night in a ward of a private Spanish hospital - £800
  • Treatment for a broken ankle in Tenerife - £7,000
  • Treatment for multiple injuries after being hit by a car in Greece - £21,000

These were all real claims fortunately paid out under travel insurance policies so the insurer picked up the bills. Without insurance many travellers may end up having to pay for their own expensive accidents.

47% of UK holiday makers believe that an EHIC entitles them to free medical care anywhere in Europe. 6% believe the entitlement is worldwide.

The facts - An EHIC entitles the bearer to the same level of state medical care provided to eligible nationals of the country they're in. This means that the treatment may be provided for free or at a reduced cost in all European Economic Area (EEA) countries including Switzerland. The EEA includes all 27 members of the European Union (EU) plus Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein. The EHIC is not accepted in Turkey as it is not a member of the EU or the EEA.

However, the provision of state care varies from country to country and does not mean you can expect to be treated as you would if you visited your UK doctor or hospital. Few EU countries pay the full cost of medical treatment as you'd expect from the NHS. For example, in France a patient may be expected to pay for a consultation with a doctor but will have up to 70% of the cost reimbursed later. The patient may also be expected to contribute to the cost of staying in a hospital overnight.

Also, in the event of an emergency, there is no guarantee that an ambulance will take you to a state hospital for treatment and many of the smaller hospitals and clinics found in holiday resorts are privately run. If you go or are taken to a privately run clinic or hospital your EHIC may not be of any benefit at all.

Medical repatriation

Nearly 1 in 10 (9%) of Brits believe that having an EHIC means that if they are seriously ill they can be flown home from Europe by air ambulance for free.

In really serious circumstances the patient may have to be transferred to a UK hospital under medical supervision. Again, this is outside of the protection provided by an EHIC but it is usually covered by a good travel insurance policy. According to one insurer the cost of flying one seriously ill British holidaymaker home from the Canary Islands by jet air ambulance was nearly £23,000.

The facts - An EHIC does not cover the cost of medical repatriation from any destination and the Government does not pay for British holidaymakers to be flown home following accidents.

Tourists who need medical treatment and repatriation risk incurring huge bills if they don't have adequate travel insurance. Without travel insurance individuals or their families have to find the money to pay for such services themselves.

Obtaining an EHIC

The European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) replaced the old E111 form in 2006 and is free to most UK residents. Residents of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man are not eligible for EHICs.

Parents and guardians can apply for EHICs for those aged under 16 and each member of a travel party must have their own EHIC.

Travellers aged over 16 can apply for an EHIC for free at https://www.ehic.org.uk. Some websites charge as much as £14.99 to manage your EHIC application but the process is quite straightforward and there should be no need to pay for an EHIC.

Jeremy Cryer, head of travel insurance at Gocompare.com, commented: "An EHIC is an essential card to carry with you on holiday in Europe but it's no substitute for having proper travel insurance. Having one might mean that you don't have to claim on your travel insurance and pay an excess and some insurers will even waive the policy excess for medical claims where you've used your EHIC but where it doesn't cover the full cost of your treatment.

"Having an EHIC may help you to access free or, more likely, discounted emergency medical services whilst abroad but it's not a guarantee that you won't have to pay anything, and it certainly won't be any help if you need medical repatriation to the UK, the costs of which can run into thousands of pounds.  It's also important to consider that an EHIC won't cover you for incidents such as losing your bags or having your passport stolen, which are typically covered by travel insurance. By using an EHIC as an alternative to travel insurance, you won't be protected in circumstances like these and risk being seriously out of pocket should something go wrong on your holiday.     

"Our advice to holidaymakers is to always arrange suitable travel insurance to ensure you're covered for medical treatment and repatriation if necessary. £1m of medical cover should be adequate for most situations but some policies offer £5m or more as standard. For minor ailments and accidents, and as long as you go to a state run hospital or healthcare centre, an EHIC could save you having to pay out too much, or anything, for treatment. Look at it as complementing your own travel insurance rather than replacing it or you might bring back a hefty medical bill as a souvenir."

-ends-

Notes to editors:

On the 19th-23rd April 2013, Vision Critical conducted an online survey among 2,015 randomly selected British adults who are Springboard UK panelists. The margin of error-which measures sampling variability-is +/- 2.2%. The results have been statistically weighted according to the most current education, age, gender and regional data to ensure samples representative of the entire adult population of United Kingdom. Discrepancies in or between totals are due to rounding.