NHS funding for patients opting for treatment abroad


The European Court of Justice has today (Tuesday 16 May, 2006) ruled on the case of Yvonne Watts, a British grandmother from Bedford who claimed compensation from her Primary Care Trust after she paid £3,900 to have her hip operation in France, and stated that the NHS could not refuse to refund the cost of treatment in another EU country if patients were forced to wait an unreasonable amount of time for their operation here in the UK.

The ruling potentially opens up the floodgates for thousands of British patients who are facing ‘unacceptable’ delays for their operations to travel abroad, pay for their operation upfront and then recoup the costs from the NHS.  Presently it is estimated that some 50,000 Britons already travel abroad for private surgery each year, mainly to save money but also due to concerns over the high incidence of MRSA in the UK.*

An attractive option for the NHS

Keith Pollard, Managing Director of the Treatment Abroad and Private Healthcare UK web sites believes that the growth of medical tourism should be seen as an attractive option for both the NHS and for patients:  “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 offered a choice of at least four providers, including NHS Trusts, Foundation Trusts, treatment centres or private hospitals and with this latest judgment 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” he added.

However the Department of Health does not expect this judgment to make a big difference to the number of people travelling abroad for hospital treatment because it says that waiting lists have now been substantially reduced:  “This case is a reminder of how far we have come, the average wait for inpatient treatment has now gone down to around eight weeks and the maximum wait has gone down from 15-18 months - when this case first came up - to six months” confirmed a Department of Health spokesperson.

The Department of Health also said that the full implications of the Court's judgment should be understood before any changes are made to the NHS systems:  “The ECJ judgment today did not decide the question of whether or not the NHS is obliged to reimburse Mrs Watts for the treatment she received abroad but rather it clarified the entitlement of UK residents to treatment abroad at NHS expense where they face undue delay in receiving that treatment in the UK”.

BMA asks for guidance

The British Medical Association welcomes the court’s view but believes that what we need now is clear guidance from the government about the way patient mobility will work in practice.  “GPs need to know how a patient should be referred to another member state for treatment, and the NHS needs to set out regulations for the reimbursement of cross-border care. It is important that the European Commission is now ready to address the wider issues of doctors’ liability and patient safety” said Dr Edwin Borman, chairman of the BMA's International Committee.

Dr Borman also said that the ruling highlights the need for continued investment in the NHS so that patients can be treated as close to home as possible and the NHS must ensure a patient's waiting time ‘does not exceed the period which is acceptable in the light of an objective medical assessment’ of clinical need.

An alternative to importing staff?

But with the UK health services suffering from a shortage of qualified nursing and medical staff, which is constraining NHS effectiveness, Keith Pollard believes that exporting patients is a sound alternative to importing staff from other countries.  “Guy's and St. Thomas' Hospital has already explored this when nearly 500 UK patients travelled to the five selected Belgian hospitals for orthopaedic surgery between June 2003 and April 2005 and were extremely positive about their experience and the quality of care that they received” he said.

Treatment Abroad is the first web site dedicated to meeting the needs of an increasing number of people looking to travel abroad for cost-effective surgery and medical treatment.  A hip replacement for example 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.

Related Links

    Get a quote for Treatment Abroad

    Treatment Abroad  - Patient stories

    Download the European Court of Justice ruling (PDF file)

*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.

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