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Friday, 18 January, 2002, 12:07 GMT
NHS patients travel abroad for surgery
The operations will take place at La Louviere clinic
The first patients to receive treatment in continental hospitals to reduce NHS waiting times have arrived in France.

Nine people left Ashford in Kent on Friday morning on Eurostar to La Louviere hospital in Lille, for cataract and joint operations.

Cost of operations
NHS 880
Private 2,000
France 1,000
NHS 3,900
Private 7,600
France 4,000
NHS 4,400
Private 8,500
France 3,000
Managers in the south-east of England plan to send 200 patients abroad at the taxpayers' expense by the end of March.

They refused to reveal how much the trip is costing, but said it was cheaper than paying for surgery privately in the UK.

This is a quick fix, short-term solution to reduce the number of patients waiting more than a year for routine operations as set out in the NHS plan.

The decision to use foreign hospitals to tackle waiting times was made by Health Secretary Alan Milburn last October, under pressure from a European court judgement three months earlier.

Judges said patients had the right to be referred elsewhere in the EU if they could not get treatment without "undue delay" in their home country.

Mr Milburn said the vast majority of patients would continue to be treated by the NHS.

However, health authorities and primary care trusts would be able to commission services from other European countries as part of their wider efforts to reduce waiting times for NHS treatment.

Target areas

Each patient will get a private room
Chief executive of the Channel primary care group in Kent, Peter Huntley, said: "Nobody will be forced to accept treatment abroad.

"Some people will be pleased to get the opportunity of early treatment abroad, others may be less keen.

"The important thing is this initiative will add to the options available and will reduce waiting times for everyone."

Patients needing hip or knee replacements will stay slightly longer at La Louviere than they would at a UK hospital.

This initiative will add to the options available and will reduce waiting times for everyone

Peter Huntley, Channel Primary Care Group
This is because French doctors want to provide intensive rehabilitation to make sure there is no need for additional treatment.

The three test-bed areas for treatment overseas are in Kent, West Sussex and Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight.

They have been chosen because they are all areas with waiting time pressures and are close to key, rapid transport links to mainland Europe.

But there is concern about the ethics of going down this route and whether it is designed to divert attention from the issue of the need to improve the NHS.

Complaints procedure

Top food and wine is on offer
Liberal Democrat health spokesman Dr Evan Harris said: "The worry is they haven't worked out who will be blamed if things go wrong.

"They also haven't worked out issues to do with whether it's fair for only those people who are fit to travel to be able to jump the queue in this way.

Shadow Health Secretary Dr Liam Fox said sending patients abroad was a "national humiliation".

He said: "The government is simply making a virtue out of necessity.

"This is not being done out of concern for patients' welfare but as a result of the European Court judgement forced on ministers last summer."

Bob Abberley from the health union Unison, said: "We don't have any objection to using spare capacity while the capacity in the NHS is developed.

The worry is they haven't worked out who will be blamed if things go wrong

Dr Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat health spokesman
"What we would be against is if this was seen as an alternative to making sure we have got enough beds and enough operating theatres and enough staff."

But the Department of Health has rejected any question of this system being a replacement for developing capacity in the NHS.

A spokeswoman said: "As far as we are concerned the government is investing heavily in capacity in the UK, but while that's happening we believe it is appropriate to use surplus capacity elsewhere in the EU."

On the question of complaints over treatment in the EU if an operation goes wrong, the spokeswoman said: "Patients would have the same rights as if they were having treatment in this country and we would recover any costs from the provider."

Health reforms

A total of 23 patients from the target areas were assessed by French doctors at the William Harvey hospital, Ashford, earlier this week to confirm they were fit to travel.

A second group will follow the first nine patients before the end of the month and there will be regular pilots until the end of March.

The hospital is looking at different hospitals beyond Lille and the pilots may move beyond France.

The patients will be accompanied by translators. English language newspapers and television will be available.

Alan Milburn
Milburn: needs to meet targets
All patients' costs will be covered by the health trust, but any accompanying relatives will have to pay their own expenses.

Dr Philippe Boucquilon of La Louviere hospital said: "We are very pleased to be involved in this international initiative which will help British patients get the treatment they need as swiftly as possible.

"There is no reason why national borders should stand in the way of anybody getting top quality healthcare.

"We are proud to be involved in this project and we will, of course, ensure that patients' stays in France are as comfortable as possible."

The government's aim is to reform the health service to ensure NHS patients wait an average of just seven weeks for an operation in English hospitals by 2005.

The BBC's Karen Allen
"In future more patients could be sent overseas"
Shadow Health Secretary Dr Liam Fox
"I think many people will think of it as a national humiliation"
Dr Marie Laure Albie, French GPs' union
"I think primary care is better in England"
See also:

06 Dec 01 | UK Politics
Patients 'to pick' their hospital
17 Oct 01 | Health
More have private ops
08 Aug 01 | Health
Heart Hospital - a bargain?
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