McHale & Co. Solicitors Blog

Kent NHS offering patients the choice to have surgery in France

Local hospitals have been struggling with growing waiting lists since the government spending cuts, with waiting times across the UK logging at record levels (the average wait for most common procedures is 3 months), and 3.4 million people on the lists – the highest in 7 years.

One solution that has been proposed to alleviate the burden is to provide the option for patients to travel to France for minor operations and medical procedures. Two French providers submitted their applications following the South Kent Coast Clinical Commissioning Group’s (CCG) invitation to organisations to provide a number of medical services. Fondation Hopale and Centre Hospitalier de Calais are the two French hospitals that are finalising their contracts with the NHS to provide services to the county. They are planning to treat around 400 British patients per year, but it is noted that patients would have to pay for their own travel and incidental costs.

No doubt, questions have arisen as to the potential complications: the legal processes if clinical negligence were to occur, who would be liable to pay up if something goes wrong, and who would be responsible for the after-care. However it has been confirmed that providers would give patients 24-hour access to the surgical team 2 weeks post treatment. It has been arranged for Calais clinicians to share patient information with NHS GP’s, but the hospital director in Calais has not detailed how this would work in practice. Patients would have to be willing to travel for post-operative checkups or suggestions have been made that these could be done via phone/Skype.  Surely a Skype check up is not satisfactory?

UNISON, the second largest trade union in the UK, has cited this decision as an “admission of failure” by the NHS. The union’s regional organiser, Simon Bolton, claimed it was being used to distract the public from the fact that the East Kent University Hospitals Trust was doing badly, and were unwilling to solve their problems through asking the government for more funding due to political reasons. The trust has in fact been facing problems – following a CQC inspection in August 2014 the provider has been rated as “inadequate” in relation to safety and leadership.

However, it could in practice be more accessible than the increasingly busy hospitals in London, and for some residents in Kent, the hospital is less than an hour away. Considering the French health system is often seen as one to be modelled on, it could be argued that patients would actually receive better services in France than in the UK. The Tory MP for Folkestone and Hythe, Damian Collins, emphasised that outsourcing healthcare needs was by no means a long-term plan, and was just a short-term measure to offer patients more options whilst the NHS continued their endeavours to improve their services and increase capacity. There have also been reassurances in the Calais hospital that language would not be a barrier, and stated that they have been providing English classes to around 70 nurses. However in my opinion there will undoubtedly be occasions when language will be a potential barrier when taking a detailed patient history.

Since 2006, it has in fact been a legal right for British patients to have an operation or procedure in another EU country paid for by the NHS, if they are able to prove they are experiencing an “undue delay”. Opening up such a choice has in addition been justified as being in line with EU competition rules. It can simply be anticipated whether or not this will actually work in practice.

As a clinical negligence solicitor who brings claims for victims of medical malpractice I am worried by the proposals. As previously mentioned I do think that there will be language barriers which will cause difficulty when considering whether appropriate consent has been given for treatment and when presenting symptoms. I think that the provision for check-ups has been overlooked – the proposal for Skype video examinations is short sighted. Another thing to consider is if something goes wrong, and believe me this happens more than you think, then will the patient stay in France whilst they (hopefully) recover. This would mean family of the patient would have to take long periods off work in order to visit the patient and also it would cost them a small fortune in travel expenses.

I must say that I tend to agree with UNISONS assumptions that the proposal has been made in order to combat the struggling Kent Trust failures. Surely the emphasis should be to improve our own hospitals as opposed to literally shipping us off to France?!

Tags: NHS

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