Health tourism is raised every now again by politicians, but never has it been raised so forcefully by such a senior doctor. In this week’s Spectator, Professor J.Meirion Thomas, a consultant surgeon with the NHS and one of Britain’s leading cancer experts, speaks out about health tourism. He writes:

I am frustrated at seeing the NHS targeted by patients who are ineligible for free care, but who usually get through the net. Specialist units may be especially vulnerable. Reluctantly, I have decided to share my concerns. The final trigger to write this article was a potentially ineligible patient who accused me of unethical behaviour because I would not promote his application with my Trust for immediate and free NHS care. In any event, it is not the doctor’s job to decide on eligibility, but often it is only at the time of the initial or even subsequent consultations that the breach is first recognised.

The consultant explains how patients who are not British citizens are still able to claim free NHS care:

The Department of Health has abrogated its duties by delegating responsibility to individual hospitals. But the ‘Eligibility Officers’ at each hospital have a near impossible task, because the guidelines they have to follow are vague and open to interpretation. Moreover, ineligible patients are often familiar with the guidelines and can exploit their ambiguities.

The Department of Health states that NHS treatment is free to those who are ‘ordinarily resident’ in the UK, meaning that they live here ‘on a lawful, properly settled basis’. But on this score, there is a long list of exemptions.

The official figures for health tourism suggest it’s quite low, but that may be because – as the piece illustrates – it is very easy to register. The same applies to expat Brits who are not technically allowed NHS treatment, but can easily fiddle the system (although he advises that ‘It’s a good idea, though, not to show the mammogram from Cyprus, the colonoscopy report from Spain or the CT scan from Thailand’.)

Can Britain afford an International Health Service, or does the government, as Meirion Thomas argues, need to tighten up its regulations? You can read the full piece here, or in this week’s Spectator magazine, in print and online from today. Click here to subscribe.

Tags: health tourism, NHS, UK politics