The British Medical Association (BMA) has welcomed plans for NHS patients to have more power to seek treatment within the European Union (EU), but warned that practical issues still need to be addressed.
The European Commission (EC) recently proposed that EU citizens may in future be able to shop around Europe for the best medical treatment, and get reimbursed in their home country.
The proposals have led to claims that this will encourage "health tourism" and a two-tier health system, with those who can afford to travel abroad for their healthcare receiving better care than those who cannot afford this.
The BMA yesterday (11 September 2008) expressed support for the principle of greater patient mobility. However, it advises patients considering treatment in another member state to be aware of issues arising from language barriers and cultural differences, as well as potential problems with continuity of care.
The BMA submission calls for a set of minimum quality standards for healthcare in Europe overseen by the EC, and for a system of regulatory redress and compensation for patients who suffer unexpected harm as a result of cross-border healthcare.
It warns that the principle of equal access may be compromised if patients have to pay upfront for care received abroad, or if they are expected to pay the difference in cost where treatments are more expensive.
Dr Terry John, Chairman of the BMA's International Committee, said: "Unfortunately, it is not always possible for patients to get high-quality care close to home without delay, and we support the principle of greater mobility within Europe.
"However, we would like to see much more work done on some of the practicalities – for example, who will interpret and translate medical notes? How will information be shared between doctors in the home country and those in the country providing treatment?
"We also need to see mechanisms in place to prevent the benefits of cross-border care being restricted to the wealthiest NHS patients."
Your comments: (Terms and conditions apply)
"The BMA article concentrates on UK patients going to the EC. EC hospitals have sophisticated billing systems. What of EC patients using the NHS? Individual NHS hospitals etc operating a 'free at the point of delivery service' have little capability or knowledge relating to collecting payments from patients at all, let alone from the whole of the EC!" – Mike Greenbank, Norfolk