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Thursday, 6 December, 2001, 10:43 GMT
How patient choice works abroad
Patients may get treatment overseas
With plans announced to give some patients the choice of treatment abroad or going private, BBC health correspondent Daniel Sandford went to Germany and Belgium to see how similar systems work there.

After all the speculation over whether NHS patients should be sent abroad for treatment we decided to go and have a look for ourselves.

We travelled two and a half hours from Frankfurt into the Thuringen Forest in former East Germany.

We were heading for a brand new luxury hospital in the small town of Bad Berka. It is privately run but contracts its services to the state sector.

In order to use up its spare capacity and earn extra money for future investment it is looking to treat patients from abroad.

It is already treating patients sent by the Norwegian equivalent of the NHS.

We found two of them - Egil Bjorudahl and Espen Olsen - recovering from back surgery. They were in very good spirits.

German hospital
German hospitals have state-of-the-art facilities
A Norwegian translator was on hand, and Norwegian television had been laid on in the room they shared.

GerMedic an organisation looking for business for German hospitals is now targeting the NHS in England.

We asked Espen Olsen what would be his advice to English patients offered the service. "Come to Germany straightaway with the first plane", he said. It has saved him an 18 month wait.

Attractive idea

In theory the idea is actually quite attractive to the NHS.

The great thing about using foreign hospitals to reduce waiting lists rather then private hospitals in Britain is that they will not be using nurses and doctors from the same pool of expertise.

Treatment in Germany will really be a good solution for English patients

Axel Hollander
The German hospitals are offering to hip operations for the NHS including three weeks rehabilitation and flights for around 6,500. This compares quite favourably with what a private British hospital will charge.

Mr Milburn will announce on Thursday plans for a pilot scheme due to be up and running across London by July 2002.

Under the scheme patients who have waited more than six months will be contacted and offered a choice of where to be treated.

If it gets off the ground across England and Wales it could make a real difference. Last year there were 62,000 people waiting for a hip or a knee replacement in England.

Axel Hollander of GerMedic says German hospitals could help by doing 10,000 operations a year.

At least five NHS trusts in the Midlands are seriously considering the idea.

They are using Keith Smith, a businessman who has set up a company called Euromedic to organise the logistics.

He has been taking hospital managers round hospitals on the continent checking the standards of care.

He is convinced Belgian, French and German hospitals are as good an option as using private hospitals in Britain, if not better.

Besides, he says, private hospitals here are already turning down NHS patients.


Everybody agrees this is not a long-term solution for the NHS.

But it is difficult to find a coherent argument against sending someone to a high quality foreign hospital for treatment if it will save them months of pain.

Dr George Rae, of the British Medical Association, said the only way to improve the situation in the UK was to increase funding for the NHS.

"Patients should not suffer, they should not be in pain, they should not be in distress.

"In the short term to send them abroad would possibly be a way forward for the benefit of patients."

The BBC's Daniel Sandford
"English patients could be filling empty European beds by Christmas"
See also:

30 Jul 01 | Health
German hip op plan defended
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