The uncertainty in the NHS is pushing more UK patients to consider treatment abroad

While the UK’s media is focused on the chaos that surrounds the UK’s attempts to leave or stay in (who knows?) the European Union, much less coverage is being given to what is happening in the UK’s healthcare system – the NHS. It’s pushing more UK patients to consider treatment abroad.

Lack of funding, staff shortages, growing demand from an ageing population, and the uncertainty around Brexit are all contributing to an unprecedented increase in UK patients exploring the options for low cost treatment abroad.

NHS waiting lists are at an all-time high

One of the Brexit promises from the Leave Campaign was that the country would be able to spend an additional £350m per week on the NHS, instead of paying this to the EU. In the meantime:

  • Official figures published by NHS Improvementshow the national waiting list for elective surgery was around 3.9 million at the midway point of 2018-19.
  • A BBC investigation found that one in five NHS hospital services failed to hit the key national waiting-time targets in the last year. The government has pledged an additional £1.6 billion in 2019 to improve performance and cut waiting times, but it’s unlikely to be enough.
  • Waiting times for NHS cancer treatmentare at the worst ever level. Over 18,000 suspected cancer patients a month in England are not getting to see a specialist or are not starting their treatment within the prescribed timescales.

Access to non-urgent treatments is being restricted

Access to non-urgent treatments, such as IVF, is being restricted.

  • The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence(NICE) guidance recommends women under 40-years-old should be offered three cycles of IVF and for some women aged 40-42, one cycle. However, only around 13% of England’s 195 clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) offer the three NHS-funded cycles.
  • Nine out of 10 CCGs in England do not allow couples to access NHS IVF if one person has a child from a previous relationship, and some also set their own age limits, including men having to be under 55 or women older than 25.

    So, an increasing number of infertile couples are having to finance IVF treatment out of their own pockets. With the high cost of IVF treatment in the UK’s private IVF clinics, many are looking at the options for fertility treatment abroad.

NHS staff under pressure

Within the NHS workforce there is significant uncertainty about the healthcare landscape post-Brexit. Staff are pessimistic.

  • A majority of the UK’s doctors and nurses think that the NHS will deteriorate after Brexit, with the result being longer waiting times and more staff shortages, according to a YouGov poll of medical professionals.
  • A BMA survey of over 1,500 EU doctorsworking in the UK has found that less than a quarter have faith in the Prime Minister’s commitment to protect their rights in the event of a no-deal Brexit, with over a third making plans to move abroad following Brexit.

One in every 20 NHS employees is from the EU. Since the referendum result, the number of European Economic Area (EEA) nurses leaving the NHS has tripled. Around 4,000 staff have left the Nursing and Midwifery Council between 2017 and 2018.

So, 2019 is the ideal time to target the UK market.

The UK’s International Passenger Survey provides some insight into patient flows out of the UK. It’s a small sample and the method of data capture is by no means 100% reliable. Many of the outbound medical tourists are diaspora (e.g. Polish, Indian) returning to their home country for treatment. Nevertheless, the data has been collected in the same way for many years. It’s difficult to argue with the upward trend.

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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.