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Saturday, 19 January, 2002, 16:50 GMT
NHS patients recover after surgery abroad
NHS patients in France
NHS patients at the La Louviere hospital in Lille, France
Nine British NHS patients who travelled to France for treatment are recovering after their operations.

French surgeons carried out hip, knee and cataract operations on the four men and five women at the private La Louviere hospital in Lille.

The group, who arrived on Friday on Eurostar from Ashford in Kent, were offered the treatment abroad to help reduce NHS waiting times.

Trip organiser Peter Huntley, the chief executive of the Channel primary care group in Kent, said: "I am pleased that all of the operations have been successfully completed.

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
"The patients are now recovering from surgery and making good progress."

The four patients who had cataract operations and are expected home within days.

But the other five patients will be kept in for up to three weeks for intensive physiotherapy, to prevent follow-up work by the NHS.

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 say how much the operations are costing, but the bill will be paid by the NHS.

Target areas

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.

It is bad enough that we endure the national humiliation of being unable to treat patients in our own country

Dr Liam Fox, Conservative MP
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.

The three test-bed areas for treatment overseas are in Kent, West Sussex and Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight - all with waiting time pressures and close to rapid transport links to mainland Europe.

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

There is concern about the programme and whether it is designed to divert attention from the issue of the need to improve the NHS.

Humiliating decision

Shadow health secretary Dr Liam Fox said sending patients abroad was a "national humiliation".

A Department of Health spokeswoman said if anything went wrong, patients would have the same rights as if they were having treatment in this country.

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.

All patients' costs will be covered by the health trust, but any accompanying relatives will have to pay their own expenses.

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 Lille
"For every patient that's treated here, a bed's freed up at a hospital at home"
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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