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NHS funding of treatment in the EU

Press statement:   16 May 2006


With news today that the European Court of Justice has told the NHS that it must fund treatment in the EU if patients face unwarranted delays, Keith Pollard, Managing Director of the Treatment Abroad and Private Healthcare UK web sites says that the growth of medical tourism should be seen as an attractive option for both the NHS and for patients. www.treatmentabroad.net is the first web site dedicated to meet the needs of an increasing number of people looking abroad for cost effective surgery and medical treatment.


“The prospect of lengthy waits along with hefty medical bills has meant that more and more people are looking abroad at the competitive prices charged for high quality hospital treatment.  Once a GP has decided that a referral is required, NHS patients are now offered a choice of at least four providers. These can be NHS Trusts, Foundation Trusts, treatment centres, or private hospitals.  But with this latest judgement, there is no reason why patient choice cannot be extended to include hospitals in Europe, provided that the quality of care matches that of the NHS. 


It is estimated that some 50,000 Britons already travel abroad for private surgery each year.  The main attraction is cost – a hip replacement in a private hospital in the UK can run up a bill of £7,000 to £9,000, while a short trip to the continent can reduce this figure by to £3,000 to £4,000. Concerns about the high incidence of MRSA in the UK is also encouraging people to travel abroad.*


The UK health services are suffering from a shortage of qualified nursing and medical staff, and this is constraining NHS effectiveness in reducing waiting lists.  One solution has been to import staff from other countries; but why not export patients as an alternative?  Guy's and St. Thomas' Hospital has already explored this approach in a pilot project which offered mostly elderly patients who had been on the waiting list for more than 6 months, the option of orthopaedic surgery in Belgium.  Nearly 500 UK patients travelled to the five selected Belgian hospitals for orthopaedic surgery between June 2003 and April 2005. Patients were extremely positive about their experience and the quality of care that they received.


Given the choice of an operation at a UK hospital in six months time, or an operation next week in a state of the art hospital in Belgium, India or Poland, how many UK patients might choose the latter? “


* Data published by the European Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance System2 shows that the proportion of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria which is methicillin resistant is certainly higher in the UK (44.5% in 2002) than in countries such as Belgium (19.2%), Czech Republic (6.2%) and the Netherlands (1.0%). But this does not show the incidence of hospital acquired MRSA infection.