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
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....
Date published: 15 Feb 2011
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