NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Who Will British Patients Sue When Treated Abroad?

September 21, 2001

After the European Court of Justice ruled that the British government must provide treatment for patients abroad if it could not ensure their timely treatment in the United Kingdom -- due to long National Health Service (NHS) waiting lists -- the Department of Health set up plans to send some patients to other European countries for treatment. However, concerns about the availability of legal redress for patients whose treatment goes wrong could hold up the implementation of the plan, says the British Medical Journal.

  • The U.K. is the only European country with such a comprehensive legal aid scheme, where around 90 percent of medical negligence claims are financed by legal aid.
  • It provides coverage only for claims brought in U.K. courts and therefore normally excludes claims against defendants located abroad.
  • In Germany, for example, most people are covered by legal expenses insurance, which they can call on when a claim arises.

One answer might be for the NHS to provide such insurance for patients going abroad for treatment.

A more likely solution would be for the NHS to acknowledge that it continues to have a duty to care for patients treated abroad. That would allow patients negligently treated elsewhere in Europe to sue the NHS trust that referred them for treatment. It would also be a strong incentive to rigorous vetting when choosing providers abroad.

Source: Clare Dyer, "Legal problems could delay introduction of NHS treatment abroad," British Medical Journal, September 22, 2001.


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