Cross-border healthcare could cause a surge of patient numbers from abroad

Will European hospitals see a surge in patient numbers following the approval of the EU Directive on Cross-Border Healthcare by the European Parliament last week?

Will European hospitals see a surge in patient numbers following the approval of the EU Directive on Cross-Border Healthcare by the European Parliament last week?

I would like to say…Yes! But the reality may be a little different. So….let’s take a look at how the EU Directive may (or may not) change the way that healthcare works in Europe and more importantly whether it will give a boost to the medical travel sector.

Consolidation of existing patient rights

The EU Directive does not give patients any rights to cross border healthcare that they don’t have already. It doesn’t introduce any new rights. These rights have already been established by the European Court of Justice. What the Directive aims to do is to establish a framework within which cross border healthcare will operate and to set the rules regarding how patients will access care and what kind of treatment they are entitled to. The new rules should be in place by 2013 (in theory….).

The Directive will end the uncertainty about the kind of treatments that patients are entitled to elsewhere within Europe and it will also allow domestic healthcare systems to maintain control of the patient’s entitlement to cross border healthcare. But the Directive does present opportunities for hospitals and healthcare providers to generate revenue from patients from elsewhere in the EU.

But overall, there will not be an overnight change and we are unlikely to see a surge in the number of cross border patients within the EU.

Within the UK, there are already well established procedures for National Health Service patients who wish to exercise their right to cross border care under existing EU law. Every NHS trust has (in theory) a procedure in place to deal with requests and to manage the process. See “NHS Choices – Planned treatment abroad”. Last year, it is believed that around 500 British patients exercised their right to cross border healthcare and underwent treatment abroad that was funded by the NHS.

A boom in cross border healthcare?

So, with the approval of the EU Directive, will 500 become 5,000 or even 50,000? It’s unlikely.

One reason is simply awareness of the EU treatment option amongst the general public. It isn’t in the interests of the NHS to promote the EU option. And there is no-one in the medical travel sector with the kind of marketing budget required to really boost awareness of medical travel within the UK (or within any target market in Europe). However, this doesn’t mean that hospitals within the EU and medical travel facilitators can’t exploit some of the opportunities presented by the EU Directive. If a patient approaches you needing an operation, you should always check if they are aware of their EU rights to cross border healthcare and the possibility of third party funding of their treatment.

Another reason for steady rather than exponential growth in cross border healthcare is that the “propensity to travel” amongst patients will always be low. Patients want treatment close to home. When patient choice within the NHS was extended to allow patients to travel anywhere within the UK for treatment (internal medical tourism) as opposed to just their local area, little changed. Even if there was a waiting list in their local area, patients preferred to wait for local treatment rather than travel to another NHS hospital 100 miles away for immediate treatment.

In the longer term, what may drive growth in cross border healthcare is how governments, insurers, payors and patients deal with the increasing pressure to reduce expenditure on healthcare. Significant changes are taking place in the UK healthcare system driven by rising national debt and the resulting need for reductions in public expenditure. There may be more overt “rationing” of healthcare services and encouragement for patients to fund or co-fund their treatment. Such changes may create a more open market in healthcare in which the cross border healthcare option plays an increased role.

Only time will tell….

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Keith Pollard
As Editor in Chief of International Medical Travel Journal (IMTJ) and a Healthcare Consultant for LaingBuisson, Keith Pollard is one of Europe’s leading experts on private healthcare, medical tourism and cross border healthcare, providing consultancy and research services, and attending and contributing to major conferences across the world on the subject. He has been involved in private healthcare, medical travel and cross border healthcare since the 1990s. His career has embraced the management of private hospitals in the UK, research and feasibility studies for healthcare ventures, the marketing and business development aspects of healthcare and medical travel and publishing, research and consultancy on cross border healthcare.