NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

NHS Plans To Send Patients Abroad

August 29, 2001

Britain's National Health Service will pay for patients to be treated abroad to help cut down long waiting lists. The policy shift was forced by a European Court of Justice ruling saying patients could seek treatment in other countries if they face "undue delay" at home.

Britain's center-left Labor government has been under pressure to cut waiting times since coming to power in 1997.

  • At present, around a million Britons are awaiting treatment from the state-funded National Health Service -- more than 40,000 waiting for more than a year for operations.
  • Under current NHS rules, about 500 patients travel from Britain to other parts of the EU for treatment each year, generally only if they require a rare treatment not available in the U.K.
  • Other EU countries, such as France and Germany, have a far higher number of beds per head of population than England, where the NHS is widely seen as being unable to meet the demands placed on it.
  • The court judged that the "timeliness norm" of medical treatment should be that 80 percent of patients are treated in the first five weeks.

The government had originally rejected calls to use overseas hospitals to treat painful but not life-threatening illnesses, arguing its investment and reforms would reduce waiting times for operations to just seven weeks by 2005.

Critics said the turn of events was the result of the government's failure to address the problems of the health service, adding that the ruling could send NHS cash out of the country, causing still more shortages in the health service -- and even leading to nurses and doctors being recruited by foreign hospitals to treat British patients.

Source: Reuters, "Milburn Gives Green Light for NHS Treatment Overseas," and "NHS Plans to Send Patients Abroad," August 26, 2001.

 

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