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Foreign patients ‘lucrative source of NHS income’

More UK residents seek treatment abroad than vice versa

Jo Carlowe

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

More UK residents are travelling abroad for treatment than the other way round, a study has found.

Contrary to some media reports more UK residents seek treatment overseas than international patients travel to the UK to access NHS or private treatment here, say researchers in this week’s BMJ.

Depending on the procedure undertaken, patients who travel abroad may also save the UK resources, write Johanna Hanefeld and colleagues at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the University of York.

Following recent debate about expanding the NHS abroad, they analysed the effects of UK medical tourism on the NHS, using freedom of information requests to NHS foundation trust hospitals. They found that, despite small numbers of international private patients being treated (6% across a sample of 28 hospitals) these patients were responsible for 35% of total private income in these trusts.

“This indicates that private foreign patients may be more lucrative than UK patients treated privately within the NHS,” they write.

They acknowledge that, as with most discussion of trade in health services, “much opinion is based on shaky, if any, evidence.” However, they say, “our study aims to fill that gap, and in doing so shows that many aspects of currently received wisdom are really myths.”

The researchers concluded: “We need more accurate evidence to inform policy making on issues.”

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