I was immediately impressed with the diversity and calibre of the audience – representatives from the Royal colleges, NHS departments running overseas visitor services, the pharmaceutical industry, charities, the food industry and independent commentators and service providers. We had limited time available to brainstorm the positives and negatives of EU membership from the perspective of public health, the NHS, and medical devices and medicines.
I joined the NHS workshop and although I suspect the organisers didn’t learn anything new from the gathered ‘experts’ it was interesting to note the polarity of views. Despite a request to keep things ‘high level’ the group understandably kept slipping towards minutiae and local specifics. We discussed the report, ‘Patient choice beyond borders’ issued by the NHS European office in May 2011. The EU directive confirming the right of patients to receive healthcare in another EU member state will become law in October 2013. In simple terms, patients can travel to any member state to receive care that would be available in their home country and the cost (excluding travel and accommodation) must be reimbursed by the home country. The treatment tariff from the home country will apply. There have already been some test cases where the European Court of Justice decided in favour of the claimants, and ruled that a PCT should reimburse UK patients for their elective overseas treatment. Pre-authorisation is desirable but not essential. There is already a steady flow or European patients attending the NHS for treatment. But is this free movement of patients and staff good or bad for the NHS and the UK in general? Cue a heated discussion….
It was agreed that most of the negatives and pitfalls of accepting European patients into the NHS are not due to EU law, but down to the fact that our healthcare is a ‘residency based system’ so if someone is ‘residing’ in the UK – they are likely to be treated. It is the way we police this treatment of ‘visitors’ in hospitals that leads to a significant number of patients receiving care for which the UK is not reimbursed. But is this the EU’s fault? No it’s not. The point was made that UK citizens travelling to Europe for treatment remove themselves from the duty of the care of the NHS for that treatment so they are at the mercy of their chosen facility. This highlights the need for some sort of central information service to report on standards and clinical governance – a bit like Tripadvisor for health!
The pluses of an open European market for health are exciting and manifold and as the discussion continued, I found myself becoming increasingly Europhile! Shared data, research, the creation of world renowned centres of excellence are all tangible opportunities to bring much needed income into the NHS. The way that Great Ormond Street Hospital has become a global brand is a good example of how we could promote specialist services throughout Europe. Another sensitive issue is cross border employment. The risk of losing doctors and nurses to overseas competitors is offset by a significant number of European clinicians choosing to work in the UK. Language is a major hurdle to be overcome, but again this is down to local management – if an EU migrant worker does not have sufficient language skills to do their job properly then a hospital is under no obligation to employ them.
This blog only scratches the surface of what was discussed at the review and the scope of evidence to be collected is mind blowing. But I was left with a new insight on the European Union and the potential it can offer. So many of our negatives against this free market are down to local interpretation, the generous way the NHS is set up, poor reimbursement collection systems and dare I say, narrow minds.
What about the elephant in the room? David Cameron’s referendum that could potentially exclude us from the EU? It wasn’t mentioned..